The final GaymerX conference

This weekend I have been in the company of a couple of thousand wonderful, creative, supportive gamers and developers. These people also happen to be ‘gaymers’.

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The GaymerX conference happened for the second and final time in San Francisco this week, and won’t be happening again… But something will be taking its place. The term ‘gaymer’ was coined as a banner for uniting a group of gay geeks who didn’t fit the mainstream discourse of gaming, but it became something much more broad. This weekend saw people with many expressions of non-mainstream diversity coming together to show the games world that they exist, they matter, they want to see themselves in the games that they play, and that they are happy to put their money behind events and games that recognise them.

That last part is important – GaymerX is a statement that a whole market exists that many games are rarely addressing, or that are being spoken to in ways that are not recognising the real issues faced by the players.

The weekend raised some deep issues of diversity representation in games, such as the subtle balance of the pros and cons of fantasy games where homosexual relationships are available; these games were recognised for being positive for including these options, but there was discussion about whether the absolute in-world acceptance from other characters is a help, or a hindrance, towards the understanding of challenges faced by people in real-world gay relationships. Is it more valuable to have an escapist fantasy or an educational reflection of life? These kinds of discussion provided food for thought, and were good-willed on all sides, which encapsulates the mood of the weekend where the ‘safe space’ attitude was largely undisturbed.

Not only ‘gaymers’

The visitors to the conference were mostly gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender. These are the main groups that you would expect, but the GaymerX conference also welcomed a crowd that embraced diversity in many more respects than sexuality: people with different physical shapes or capabilities, people of colour, genderqueer people, people with social or mental health difficulties, kinky people, and it should not be forgotten that straight people were there and welcomed too.

Straight, white men were absolutely not an ‘enemy’ at the conference; it simply was not focussed on their stories. The stories being told were of queer developers and players expressing their lives through games, or of celebrating the WWE professional wrestler Derren Young (@DarrenYoungWWE the first openly gay pro wrestler in WWE) who was there to talk about his work and meet fans, or about being a gay parent who games, or games dev entrepreneurship when you are non-mainstream in your lifestyle or content, and many other stories that do not regularly make it into mainstream games culture.

The conference featured talks about queer lifestyles, diversity, and equality, but also experimental Oculus Rift projects and defying design conventions in your gameplay mechanics. The mix of content for attendees ranged between feminist discussions with Anita Sarkeesian (@femfreq) to practical games development experience from Bioware’s David Gaider (@davidgaider).

Recognition from major sponsors

The sponsors contributed some very high quality stands to the show: 2K Games showed the first ever playable demo of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. IndieCade and Cards Against Humanity had a strong presence, and League Of Legends helped out cosplayers with a sponsored changing room. Non-gaming sponsors Logo TV and Mailchimp also put their support in financially, but didn’t exhibit.

Ubisoft were a major sponsor of the event, showing that there is a lot of goodwill in the company towards becoming more diversity-sensitive. The staff on their stand talked passionately about their efforts to make Ubisoft a leader in this field. In the light of the recent Assassin’s Creed male-only playable cast controversy, it was heartening to be reassured that the error was not indicative of the whole company, and that genuine efforts are being made elsewhere.

Ubisoft’s presence was a marker of the tone of a lot of the conference: there was a general feeling that improvements are coming in the games industry, but also that mistakes are going to be made. A production judgement call is going to remove representation for women when it shouldn’t: these things are still going to happen, but a growing number of people from the games industry are listening and trying to foment change. The tone recognised a general goodwill towards developers as long as mistakes are recognised and responsibility is taken to try harder in the future. Everyone would rather mistakes were never made, but the feeling at the conference seemed to be one of positivity about progress and not dwelling on errors apart from to learn lessons.

There is a stereotype of feminist/diversity activists that they are always angry and demanding changes. The anger wasn’t there this weekend and those demands were polite. Yes, the attendees and exhibitors all passionately desire change, but the number of voices speaking is changing the tone: instead of demanding change, those voices were saying ‘if you want to get a bigger market, talk to more people in meaningful ways’, and the feeling from the weekend was that games developers are beginning to listen.

There were some notable big publishers absent from the event. In the mode of Nintendo talking about not having gay characters in Tomodachi Life, there was a feeling those other publishers do not want to make ‘a political statement’ by attending. As Matt Conn (@mattconn), one of the key organisers of the event, said in the opening speech: ‘it’s not comfortable to have my identity described as a “political statement”’. Despite some very vocal commenters on the internet, it is increasingly difficult to believe that other publishers will hold off from supporting these kinds of events in future.

Queer lifestyles and awareness in games development and education

For my part, I spoke at a panel on how LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) developers are creating games that in some ways reflect their lifestyles. The panel was headed by Gordon Bellamy (@GordonBellamy), former head of the IGDA, who is both openly gay and a person of colour, and featured a mix of gay, bisexual, and transsexual games developers. We talked about how tropes for gamers are going to be expanded as non-mainstream lifestyles become more recognised.

I also ran a panel on how queer lifestyles and diversity awareness can be included into games development education. I am a senior lecturer at NHTV University in the Netherlands, where I teach games design at IGAD (the games development department). It is a Bachelors-level programme that is highly rated in Europe, and part of the training given to the students is in ethics. Alongside concepts of understanding the possible links between violence and video games, responsibility for gamer addiction, and other serious topics of social importance, I teach about diversity awareness and sensitivity towards queer lifestyles.

The term ‘queer’ scares a lot of people, but it is being reclaimed. It is a term that has long been used as an insult, and still is sometimes, but many people who do not comfortably fit the stereotype of a mainstream gamer are also not gay: they may be heterosexual but also transgender; they may be heterosexual but they are also polyamorous (they can love and have supportive meaningful relationships with multiple people); they may be bisexual; they may be cross-dressers, or furries, or kinky, or many other expressions of humanity that are not precisely encapsulated by the term ‘gay’. Rather than a person saying ‘I am a kinky heterosexual cross-dresser in a polyamorous triad’ sometimes the term ‘queer’ is enough!

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I’m not exactly sure what I was doing with my right hand here…

In my panel, like in my classes, I talked about how awareness of simple modern feminist critical tools can make games development and content much more diversity-aware, using four main topics: privilege, micro-aggressions, victim-blaming, and tone policing.

Also in my panel, I talked about some of the challenges that can be brought on by these subjects for students, teachers, and educational institutions. I am very lucky that my colleagues and my university are supportive of the overall drive towards diversity-awareness. Of course, there are always going to be areas where students and colleagues occasionally feel some discomfort as their boundaries are pushed, but with consideration and conversation on both sides, NHTV is proving that games programmes can make progress towards very good consideration of diversity issues. Like Ubisoft, NHTV is making progress: we are all going to make mistakes sometimes (including myself, I’m sure!), but the general drive is for better treatment of everyone, and there is a genuine goodwill towards making this happen.

Fragments of Him at GaymerX

For the other part of my time at GaymerX, I was showing Fragments of Him. I am the game and narrative designer for the game, collaborating with the NHTV alumni games development team SassyBot Studio (@SassyBotStudio), and this weekend truly showed me that we are making something very special. We premiered the first ever trailer for the full game, and we also had a polished version of the prototype available to play for the visitors.

To say that this was an emotional weekend for us would be an understatement: the outpouring of positivity from players was overwhelming. We always warned people that the prototype deals with the grieving process but, even with this, almost every player was visibly moved by the experience. We kept a pile of tissues on standby, just in case, and nearly finished the whole pile by the end of the weekend! A huge thank you to everyone who visited our stall, don’t forget to pre-order soon! http://www.fragmentsofhim.com

Conclusion – the future of the GaymerX movement

Although this was the final GaymerX, Matt Conn, Toni Rocca, and the other organisers all made it increasingly clear that there would be a rebirth of the conference. In Matt Conn’s closing speech he said that ‘the term “gaymer” was useful but it doesn’t reflect the diversity of people that I see in this room’. The speech was a moving and passionate statement of his belief that the future is very bright for diversity-awareness in games content and games development. The conference was incredibly positive in its tone: it wasn’t about negging straight lifestyles, it was about saying ‘and this is also cool and interesting too’. It was about telling stories outside of the usual topics, and by doing that finding new inspiration for games’ stories and gameplay mechanics.

There was a political tone at times, with a shared hope that queer content in games might lead to more tolerance in the real world for people whose lives turn out to not be in the mainstream, but this did not feel like the push of the event. Instead it felt like a celebration of what diversity can bring to games to make them even better for everyone, whether they are straight or queer, regardless of skin colour, mental health, or body shape. It was about embracing love and acceptance, and adding more awesome content to games.

GaymerX burned brightly for two years, but the changes it heralded are continuing. Matt Conn was clear that this was not the end of the GaymerX movement, only the name. There will be more events in the future, in some form, and they will celebrate and recognise even more people’s stories, and they will keep on saying ‘we are here, we are your audience too, and together we will make everyone’s games even better’.

About Dr. Mata Haggis:

I am not affiliated with the GaymerX organisation. All views are personal impressions from the event.

I am a senior lecturer and games & narrative designer with over ten years of experience of making both indie and AAA games, and writing for games, television, webcomics, and print. I occasionally blog about games on my own website (http://games.matazone.co.uk/) and reblog onto Gamastura here.

Since 2010, I have been teaching the next generation of games developers on the IGAD (International Games Architecture & Design) programme at NHTV University in Breda, The Netherlands. It is a very highly rated course, taught entirely in English. If you are interested in learning more about games development then I highly recommend it: http://made.nhtv.nl/

When not teaching, I am the consultant games & narrative designer on Fragments of Him, collaborating with the alumni company SassyBot Studios.

This blog originally posted here.

Fragments of Him: the developers

Find out more about SassyBot, myself, and our work on the upcoming game Fragments of Him in the video below, and on the newly published website:

http://www.fragmentsofhim.com/

If you want to keep up to date on news about Fragments of Him then there are lots of ways to get involved:

https://www.facebook.com/SassyBotStudio
https://www.facebook.com/MatazoneCreative
https://twitter.com/SassyBotStudio
https://twitter.com/MataHaggis.

See you on there!

Diversity, Halo, and the ‘sexual/political agenda’ of Fragments of Him

This post looks at how games in the field of diversity are viewed as having strong cultural and political agendas based on the cultural space that they occupy rather than the intentions of the developers.

Last weekend, at the same time as PAX was corralling indie developers into a ‘diversity lounge’, I had the pleasure of showing Fragments of Him at the Different Games conference at New York University. A few hundred people gathered there to talk about gender, sex, sexuality, representation for people of colour, queer lifestyles, and diversity in games and the gaming industry.

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It was quite an emotional weekend for me: I’ve only watched ‘Let’s Play’ videos of people playing Fragments of Him, and this was the first time that I had seen it being played live. It was a very powerful experience, watching as they paused, their shoulders dropping, the mouse perfectly still as the situation in the game revealed itself. Like I say, I’ve seen this in videos, but it was a very different sensation to watch in person. Some people had to stop and walk away, muttering a ‘thank you, it was very good’ quietly as they left. I’m sorry to the people that the game upset; I hope that you find the time to experience the rest of the story and that the resolution is some consolation to you.

Direct and indirect diversity

There were a lot of discussions on diversity, and it was great to see the range of ways in which different developers were addressing these issues in their games. Many were very direct, such as the way in which Perfect Woman combines difficulty settings with a parable about the impact of today’s choices on our later situations: if you choose to be a terrorist as a twenty year old then it’s going to be tough to be a professor at thirty! It was simple, explicit (in more than one sense), and delivered an easy to understand message.

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Next to this, the Fragments of Him prototype that I was showing at the conference felt extremely reserved – it’s not a game about a gay relationship: it’s a story about grieving and moving on, which also happens to feature people who were in a gay relationship. I feel that this is a strength of the current prototype, not because being overtly about a gay relationship would automatically make it weaker as a narrative, but because it shows the universality of emotions that people go through in times of crisis, regardless of their sexuality.

However, avoiding dealing directly with sexuality isn’t something that would work in the larger Fragments of Him game that we are now developing after the success of the prototype: looking back at some of the significant relationship events of the lives of the characters, the incidents that their sexuality have provoked will almost inevitably be a point of attention.

I have mixed feelings about this. I have no fear of representing the normal lives of adults who are not heterosexual, but I also feel a little sad that it is unavoidable that some kind of forced sexual or political agenda is going to be read into all of this.

Diversity or reality?

Is there a diversity agenda to Fragments of Him? Not by intention. I want to treat my characters as normal people living in the modern world, and I hope that I can make all of the characters recognisable and believable. By treating non-heterosexual people as absolutely normal human beings (because what else would you want to do?), the story is conveying a message of compassion and empathy for all people, regardless of their identity (not just gay/bisexual men seen in the Fragments of Him prototype, but also other sexes, genders, sexualities, ages, races, and other people who may differ from ourselves in their bodies or lifestyles – some of which will feature in the expanded version that we are now developing). I am making no effort at all to force diversity into Fragments of Him, but a range of realistic characters will automatically contain people with a variety of attributes.

It strikes me as odd that this will likely be received as a political statement about diversity, when my intention is to tell an everyday story of love, loss, and hope. I do believe in the value of diversity in society, and naturally the things that I create are going to reflect those opinions. I would be happy if the game makes people appreciate the commonality of experiences between people with otherwise distinct lives, but the primary intention is to create an enjoyable drama (in the way that a tragedy can be enjoyable through a cathartic release of emotions).

I would welcome social improvements as the result of a game, but I have no intention of preaching my views through Fragments of Him and wouldn’t be egotistical enough to expect that an indie game with a good heart is going to change the world. I hope it will comfort a few people in sad situations, help a some appreciate the lives of others, or assist in thinking a little more about the people that they love… That would be a wonderful result, but that hope is not at all unique to games: it is also what very many storytellers want, I believe, and just because Fragments of Him is a game, I don’t believe that hoping for this result can be called a sexual or political ‘agenda’.

Storytelling and empathy in games

Games are a communication medium, and we must not be afraid of representing the world as we see it, or how we would like it to be. To me, a message of treating all others as humans worthy of respect shouldn’t be considered an ‘agenda’, as if this were a subversive intention: respect and civility should be the default state of all people. If, with the story in our game, we can do a little to help build a society of empathy and compassion, then I’m just fine with that. If this helps games development to mature and find sources of inspiration from outside of the common sci-fi/horror/fantasy tropes, then I would be happy with that too.

I love games, everything from zombie slaying through to blowing petals in the breeze, and I hope that the full version of Fragments of Him will be a valuable addition to the growing number of games that are interested in telling stories outside of the current mainstream. Perhaps, if anything, there is a deliberate agenda in that: expanding the language of our creative field.

The heteronormative agenda of Halo

It is interesting that a game such as Halo is not commonly talked about for its agenda. In many ways it supports the dominant patriarchal paradigm of heroic masculinity. For example, the lead character Master Chief:

  • is a tall, muscular man
  • is suited permanently in full armour so no fleshy weakness is ever exposed
  • speaks with a gruff voice
  • has a face that never shows emotion (because it is never seen)
  • recovers almost instantly from injury
  • can single-handedly turn the tide of a battle
  • has a girlfriend who is a hologram so they never have to do anything as emasculating as kissing or hugging, or squishily organic as having sex
  • spends his time penetrating organic-looking alien ships

… And so on.

It would be easy to read this as adamant support for a hyper-masculine ideal, devoid of feelings and mental or physical intimacy, where the primary goal is domination of anything seen as organic, uncontrollable, insane, and other attributes that western society has historically associated with femininity. I don’t for a second believe that Bungie set out with that as their agenda, but it can easily be read into Halo.

It is possible to see an agenda there, if we wish to look for it, just as it is possible to see an agenda in Fragments of Him, but I know which game is more likely to be discussed in terms of having a sexual/political agenda.

It is a sign that our industry needs to mature, that the presence of any character outside of a standard heteronormative binary system (people who do not fit a modern stereotype of youthful, aggressively heterosexual vigour) is read as an ‘agenda’. Master Chief fits the system, so he is not viewed as a political statement, but a gay protagonist is outside the norms of gaming lead characters, and so the game is likely to be assumed to be intentionally making a statement.

I’m content that a diversity-aware reading fits Fragments of Him, but this is neither something that I have forced to be present or something that I would ever dream of avoiding. It is a natural result of trying to represent loving and open people both fairly and honestly.

Every game has an agenda

Perhaps I am saying this the wrong way: it’s not that Fragments of Him doesn’t have a sexual/political agenda: instead it is that every game has one. These agendas are usually only identified in games that feature characters that are perceived as being outside of mainstream society. Like all cultural artefacts, all games have a societal message, but in games those messages only appear to be called an ‘agenda’ when they do not fit into a very narrow range of cultural models.

My thanks to the organisers of Different Games for a wonderful and inspiring conference, to all the lovely people that I spoke to, and everyone who played Fragments of Him. I look forward to next year!

If you haven’t played Fragments of Him yet then you might want to try it here. It takes around 15 minutes, and headphones are essential for the experience.

We look forward to sharing the progress of our game with you as we continue to build it over the next few months. Thank you for reading!

Follow me on Twitter: @MataHaggis

Follow the developers of Fragments of Him on Twitter: @SassyBotStudio

Follow me on Facebook : Matazone Creative
Follow SassyBot Facebook : SassyBot Studio

About Dr. Mata Haggis:

I’m a games & narrative designer with over ten years of experience of making both indie and AAA games, and writing for games, television, webcomics, and print. I occasionally blog about games on my own website (http://games.matazone.co.uk/) and reblog onto Gamastura here.

Since 2010, I have been teaching the next generation of games developers on the IGAD (International Games Architecture & Design) programme at NHTV University in Breda, The Netherlands. It’s a very highly rated course, taught entirely in English, and if you’re interested in learning more about games development then I highly recommend it: http://made.nhtv.nl/

When not teaching, I am the consultant games & narrative designer on Fragments of Him.

This blog originally posted here.

‘Straight-faced satire’ and gender in video games: hyper-masculinity in Far Cry 3 and the wider games industry

Trigger warning: at some points this article discusses rape.

(It also contains spoilers for Far Cry 3).

What happens when a game that is intended to be satire doesn’t get interpreted that way, and what does this tell us about the games industry?

“My goal was to create something that people could analyse”

This article looks at a range of topics related to the story and narrative in Far Cry 3, primarily from the perspective of gender politics, but also in terms of consistency between narrative design intentions and gameplay mechanics. The writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, encourages close examination of the game, saying in an interview with Penny Arcade: ‘My goal was to create something that people could analyse. Analysis is fun because there are many interpretations. If there’s just one interpretation then it’s not worth analysing.’ Yohalem has given several interviews and a presentation on his views of what was created in Far Cry 3, and this article examines his intention for the game and how successful he was at conveying this to the audience, where problems arose, and whether the problems he faced are related to only this title or to an industry-wide issue.

The story of Far Cry 3 has been reviewed as containing stereotypical characters and a predictable narrative progression. Yohlem argues that this is a misunderstanding, and says in his GDC talk that:

The story itself is a straight-faced satire of pop-cultural products like Avatar and clichéd video game plot devices. A straight-faced satire seems to support the very thing that it satirises and only exaggeration and hidden clues point to the work’s true meaning.

Yohalem is arguing that the exaggeration is part of what should tip off the player that they are really playing a satire.

In researching this article, I have read around twenty reviews of Far Cry 3, and they seem to be split about 80:20 between the story being plain and uninteresting (‘there’s a spiritual, mystical theme running through this third game that seeks to support Jason’s apparently superhuman abilities. While this does help suspend disbelief, it can’t change the lack of a meaningful journey for him.’ – Edge Magazine) and it being an exciting blockbuster Hollywood-style thrill ride (‘The story, complete with a few twists and drug-addled “is this real?” moments, certainly pulled me in and kept me pushing onwards to see how f***ed-up things could possibly get.’ – Strategy Informer). The satirical nature of the story was not mentioned in any of the reviews. The closest mention of this that I found was from The Escapist, ‘it can feel like Far Cry 3 is taking a few ideas from other popular action-adventures and trying to put a darker, edgier twist to them – and it can come across as a tad melodramatic as a result.’

With this tad melodramatic plot in mind…

Jacyn Brody and date rape

What did you think of the rape of the main character in Far Cry 3?

You’re playing as an increasingly powerful female modern-day warrior, Jacyn Brody, who’s seen her brother killed and overcome this through violent action. Then she meets the leader of a friendly tribe. The tribe wants to rid the island of pirates led by the man who killed Jacyn’s brother. The tribal leader is attractive and, frankly, a bit weird: he claims Jacyn is the chosen warrior who will lead the tribe against the pirates.

About halfway through the story comes the rape.

The leader of the tribe gives you, Jacyn, a drug. You hallucinate, then wake up under the leader, who is topless and smeared with blood. He’s having sex with you. To add to the level of creepiness, his whole tribe has been watching while he rapes you.

So… Date rape. Jacyn is drugged and recovers consciousness while having sex. Some might view this a bit more than ‘a tad melodramatic’.

Strangely, Jacyn seems okay with this, after the act. She doesn’t even seem surprised, even though they had never even kissed before her hallucination. She gets up and gives a speech about how she will lead the tribe.

Is the rape okay because she doesn’t seem bothered by it? Surely it’s too late by that point: no matter how sexy the guy, he doesn’t have the right to assume that she would want to have sex with him just because he is good looking. Perhaps this is Ubisoft trying to play out a female rape fantasy in a video game form? Those do exist, but I doubt I’m alone in finding it a bit unsettling when it is presented in a ‘straight-faced’ narrative, even one that is claiming to be satire.

It’s hard to imagine this scenario happening in a film without audiences questioning it at least a little, and Jacyn’s lack of surprise is hard to believe. Was this intended to be a clue that the game was a straight-faced satire? It seems bizarrely risky to use rape as a tool to do that.

Except, for people unfamiliar with the game, you’re not playing as the female ‘Jacyn’, you are playing as the male ‘Jason’, and the tribal leader is a beautiful woman: we are playing in a male rape fantasy, apparently.

Does this make it okay? It is certainly different in terms of cultural weight, given that not a single reviewer of the game has mentioned this.

Yohalem’s claim is that the exaggeration in the game is a way of indicating that the story is a satire. The non-consensual sex act performed on Jason is certainly extreme, but it does not seem to have flagged the game’s story as a satire for any of the professional reviewers. In an industry where narrative dissonance (the gap between the in-game character’s likeable personality and the player’s often-psychopathic actions) is the average rather than an exception, and where poor writing and hyper-masculinity is notoriously common, it cannot be too surprising that a the rape of a man by a beautiful woman is not seen as a flag of satire, or even worthy of mention.

Hyper-masculinity as a flag of satire

The problem with satire is that it needs to have clues to highlight when it is not actually in earnest. For Yohalem, who has previously worked on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the hyper-masculine character appears to be considered enough of a flag that the story was intended to be satire. Jason’s exaggeration, such as his aptitude for violence and lack of surprise that he would be mounted by a beautiful woman as soon as his defences were lowered, is a wholesale recapitulation of an American hero stereotype that has existed at least since 1893 when Frederick Jackson Turner constructed a story of the Wild West that, however illusory it may have been, formed a compelling myth around which a nation in need of a unique identity formed itself. In Turner’s view, the character of America was shaped by the frontier, and most notably by male individuals who chose to go out into the wilderness and tame the land. This concept of an American conqueror bringing civilisation, leadership, and order to wild tribes while defeating the forces of chaos, should be familiar to any players of Far Cry 3; what is harder for players to see is where Turner’s extreme vision of a solo American hero is subverted.

The blame for the unnoticed satire might not rest entirely with the writing; the mechanics of the game encourage the player to accept ludicrous extremes as normality. The PC Gamer review says of some of the crafting mechanics in the game:

If you’re going to ask players to buy into a system so hilariously removed from its origins in real-world logic, it had better work.

With the mechanics of the game exaggerated beyond real-world standards, the narrative would have to have reached even more ludicrous levels to flag it as satire for the player.

But does it do this? Arguably it does. Beside the rape of Jason, which is unquestioningly presented as a male fantasy both in the game and by Yohalem in his GDC talk (discussed later) the game’s menu screens are a reference to psychological tests, and the loading screens have quotes from Alice in Wonderland. The enemies in the game span the full range from standard psychopaths, through rapists, and on to weapons and slave traffickers. The violence is brutal and very visceral. The player can punch sharks, wrestle crocodiles, and be pecked to death by a very angry relative of an emu. On the side of the friendly characters there is a Timothy Leary-esque drug addict and a ‘group of obnoxiously privileged, ankle-tattooed friends’ (GameSpy) who are, in their own way, a less noticeable but nonetheless still extreme stereotype that viewers of the last thirty years of slasher horror films will immediately recognise as suitably beautiful fodder the hero may or may not have the time to save. Jason himself turns from a adrenaline junkie who cowers at conflict into a killer in a matter of moments, and rapidly matures into an unstoppable force of nature. This transformation is miraculous and the game recognises this by draping it with a narrative of spiritual destiny and magical tattoos. To support this journey, we are also given mystical temples, drug induced spirit quests, and World War II letters that descend into a bizarre comedy. In this light, it is easy to support Yohalen’s claim that the game’s story exaggerates everything as a clue to its satirical nature.

Why doesn’t Far Cry 3 work as a satirical art form?

Which only further highlights the question: why doesn’t Far Cry 3 work as a satirical art form? In all of the reviews of the game, no one has recognised the satirical nature of the story. The problem may not be with Yohalem’s writing at all, but in the nature of the medium he is working.

All of the above stereotypes exist commonly in many other famous games, such as the Call of Duty series, Uncharted, Devil May Cry, Prototype, Halo, Infamous, Metal Gear Solid, or Resident Evil, to name only a few. In the latter case, the Resident Evil series began with live-action cutscenes that were just earnest enough to possibly be taken as a genuine attempt at a good plot, and the ambiguity about the intentions of the writers has remained unresolved as the subsequent games appear to take their own mythology very seriously even while the twists become ever more ludicrous. The common player-character in these games is a white, heterosexual, male with short hair and a talent for extreme acts of violence. This isn’t always the case, but the balance is certainly not even as close to equal as in the movie industry, which also has notable problems in this area. Even as this stereotype is acknowledged by games developers, it still continues to dominate new titles. Against this overwhelming balance of stereotypical action game heroes in melodramatic situations, it is hard to see how any exaggeration by Yohalem was likely to inform the player that the story of Far Cry 3 was supposed to be taken not as a generic video game story, but instead as a commentary on generic video game stories.

What does it say about the games industry that we cannot recognise when an experienced writer at a major studio is trying to satirise the stories we have heard for all of our life? It is fair to say that Yohalem has indeed fulfilled his intention of creating a story with ridiculous extremes, but it seems that the games industry’s default setting for its characters is so far into hyper-masculinity that even a concerted effort by Yohalem wasn’t able to bring up any questions about his sincerity.

In an interview with Penny Arcade, Yohalem says that:

The story is itself something that can be solved, like a riddle. [...] What makes me sad is that people don’t engage with playing the riddle, trying to solve the riddle. It’s like a scavenger hunt where people aren’t collecting the first clue.

There are problems with the riddle of Far Cry 3. Even if it is a satire of the hyper-masculine fantasy usually shown in video games, the sub-plot regarding Keith (a friend of Jason’s) seems strange. Keith has been kept locked up and, it is suggested, raped by his male captor. The dismissal of the suffering of the male-on-male rape seems out of key with the tone of the rest of the game: both Keith and Jason agree to never talk about it, sending an unpalatable message about the topic. Was that intended to be a satire of how sex and gender are treated in games, and of how male sexual assault is often dismissed? It is hard to work out what the meaning of this riddle was intended to be.

Conforming to exploitation

On the subject of sex in the game between Jason and Citra (the tribal leader), Yohalem said the following during his GDC talk ‘Method Acting and Interactive Storytelling in Far Cry 3′:

We have two sex scenes in Far Cry 3. One seems to conform to exploitation, the other critiques exploitation.

Yohalem’s justification here is that, in the first incident of sex (the rape of Jason by Citra) this is a male fantasy of a weak tribal woman being lured into giving her body to Jason, or possibly, as he describes it, a ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype that Jason comes in to rescue from her besieged situation. As argued above, this interpretation of the event is at best morally dubious. The second incident of sex requires the player to choose one of two endings, and so already half of the players that reach this point are likely to not see this sequence. Given that many estimates say that only 8% of players ever finish games at all, it could then be argued that at best 4% of players are going to see the second incident of sex. If this is the point at which the critique is presented, then only a very small fraction of players are going to see it. In this scene, Citra has sex with Jason, presumably consensually, and then she stabs him in the heart after he orgasms. She says that she is now pregnant with his child and that the child will save her tribe. This is intended to be a reversal of the male fantasy, where Citra is shown to really be the exploiter all along. In the alternative ending, Citra dies without this being revealed. In both endings, Citra’s acts do not fit with Yohalem’s intention for the scenes, and their placement in the story means that few players would ever see them. If the moment of Citra murdering Jason was crucial to understanding the puzzle of Far Cry 3, then it was placed in a way that few players would reach and situated in an already undermined moral position.

“It isn’t about creating a morality play”

Mark Thompson, the lead designer of Far Cry 3, told VG24 that the game:

Doesn’t judge whether [extreme violence] is right or wrong, [...] it isn’t about creating a morality play. We simply take someone who hasn’t killed before and force them to kill, in order to save their own life and then the lives of their closest friends.

When compared to Yohalem’s ambitions for creating a space for analysis of the game industry’s views on violence, sex, and masculinity, Thompson’s statement that the game is not a morality play demonstrates that there may have been conflicting views on the message that the game was intended to deliver. Without the full integration of Yohalem’s satirical intention into the game’s systems, it becomes less surprising that inconsistencies may have occurred in the game’s narrative.

Reviewers and players alike did not question the riddle of Far Cry 3, and indeed they did not even notice that the riddle existed. In Eurogamer’s retrospective of the game, Rich Stanton writes:

The truth is that every fibre of Far Cry 3 exults in Jason’s fantasy, and so do you.

When rape, shark punching, and graphic violence are a fantasy that is not noticed for its extremity, and that no straight-faced satire can exaggerate an empowerment fantasy to the point where it becomes obviously satirical, the message for the games industry is dire: we have a problem with gender, and specifically hyper-masculinity, both in our characters and our gameplay mechanics. These values are so entrenched that they are accepted and ignored, even when sending very socially dangerous messages about serious topics such as sexual consent. Like all fantasies, empowerment narratives have their place in games (though the moral messages of consent should be handled with more care), and I am not arguing for their complete removal: they are a valid form of entertainment, just as much as the film Die Hard is a classic narrative of both class and male empowerment that shouldn’t be banned because of its own issues with gender politics, which were representative of the time. In the film industry, alternative narratives do exist and are easy to find in very popular mainstream titles. When hyper-masculine empowerment fantasies are the unquestioned normative mode of discourse then the games industry needs to start analysing itself. With such a narrow bandwidth for expression, we can see that satire is indistinguishable from the real thing.

The lesson from Far Cry 3 is not that the game’s story was a failure, but that the games industry itself is failing at telling diverse stories.

5 answers about why there is a conference for queer gamers

Over on Polygon there is an article about a conference looking at LGTBQ* gamers’ rights. The site has quite a progressive and liberal readership, and the comments so far are very positive towards the idea.

However, this is the internet, so of course in other places the existence of such an event is causing anger. I’ve seen the same questions/objections come back over and over again in equal rights movements, so I thought it worthwhile putting together a list of the greatest hits and some answers:

1. Can’t there just be gamers? Why do we need to create communities within communities?

Altogether, around 10% of the population is not heterosexual or cisgender** (born the physical sex they feel they are inside) but this group is barely visible in games and gaming communities. In hardcore gaming communities there is often a strongly abusive response to women showing their presence – LGBTQ people are almost invisible compared to women, and derogatory terms for non-heterosexuals are very common as online insults and objecting to these can result in more abuse.

It is scary to go up against these kind of odds by yourself, but it is unpleasant to have to play as characters that you don’t feel reflect your experience of life. There are many stories of black children growing up and never seeing a black hero in a story, or girls growing up and never seeing a strong female character in their films (Colin Stokes did a great TED talk on this topic). Even as an adult, we crave seeing reflections of our lives in the fictions that we enter, but when 90% of the world is apparently happy with a product, how do we start that conversation?

Could LGBTQ communities and conferences not really be necessary? The world is changing and perhaps gamers and games developers will change their attitudes by themselves, but why would they? They have the games that fit their current tastes and they are surrounded by people who appear to be just like them, so there is no immediate incentive for them to change. In other words, without creating a smaller group and some division for a while, there is very little chance that the larger group is going to learn, evolve, and improve for everyone’s benefit. When someone says why can’t there ‘just be be gamers’, and why are divisions needed, that is the answer. It’s complex and requires explanation, especially because ultimately the questioners are right: no-one wants division, but this idea of ‘just gamers’ is really a denial of the status of anyone being different from them.

Division highlights the need for change, and many don’t want that, as the next two objections show, and change is necessary, as the last objections show, but without some division this will never come.

2. Why do you have to bring sexuality into games?

Sexuality is already in games, it’s just that it’s overwhelmingly frequently heterosexual in its nature, and heterosexuality is so much like the background noise of life to most people that they never notice it. It’s like an air-conditioning system that you never hear until it suddenly stops; the sound was always there, but it’s only when something changes that you realise it.

This is called a heteronormative attitude – where there is the assumption that heterosexual attitudes are so much the normal and natural state that anything that conflicts with these assumptions becomes at best weird or unnecessary, and at worst branded as evil, unnatural, or a threat. This was reflected recently in society with the debates about the legalisation and recognition of gay marriage.

From Mario in love with Princess Peach, to Dom and his wife in Gears of War, heterosexual relationships are already present in games, so a LGBTQ conference about games is not bringing sexuality into games, it is only attempting to expand the field of experiences that games can address.

3. It’s not realistic to have a gay love story forced into my future alien warfare simulator – why does there need to be a conference about creating a Gay Agenda for gay stories in everything?

No one is insisting that there should be gay stories in everything, just like no one is insisting that heterosexual love stories should be in everything.

If there is such a thing as a ‘Gay Agenda’ then it is to make queer*** behaviours and lifestyle choices more accepted so that everyone can live peacefully and productively together in society, no matter their preference of their own sex/gender or that of their adult partner. If this can be reflected in games then that is all for the better. (It isn’t about trying to get people to have sex with kids or marry horses, as some conservative politicians and religious leaders like to suggest, but I hope we can all agree that those kind of statements are either malicious attempts to derail the discussion into meaningless territories to stall movement on actual issues that they want to avoid, or simply terrifyingly ignorant.)

Games are not separate from society: they are a medium through which stories and attitudes can be conveyed. It would be irresponsible for television and books to only tell stories about a man in a state of primal fury who kills everyone he sees, just as it would be strange if the stories they tell never included anyone who is gay (for example). Only a couple of decades ago, television programs had no gay characters… Doesn’t that seem so strange now? It’s not like gay characters have been jammed into every series, it’s just that alternative lifestyles are there as part of the menu of character behaviours that writers can use. That diversity of choice has made the stories better.

A conference about equality in games is not about forcing gay stories into inappropriate places, it is about giving developers more choices and showing them that these options are supported by the community.

4. Gay people would be the first to complain if heterosexual gamers were to make a conference just for themselves. It’s so hypocritical!

Again, we’re back in the territory of heteronormative privilege. If this is the first time you’ve heard of the concept then have a read about it because it’s a very powerful tool for understanding these kinds of debates.

Public-facing games conferences like E3 and PAX are heavily oriented towards a non-queer audience – which is fair enough because the majority of society is heterosexual and cisgender… But the weighting is so heavy that anything that does not fit this becomes a problem. Worse than this, the grouping is again overwhelmingly focussed towards men at the moment, leading to further issues when male privilege becomes involved.

Male privilege is the ugly twin of heteronormative privilege. Again, this is an important term, so if it’s new to you then it’s worth reading about. In essence, it talks about a social system where being male (or appearing male) gives rights that women do not have.

Challenges to male privilege in the gaming world have been met with some very extreme responses – threats of violence, murder, and rape are not unknown for even small questions regarding the representation of women in games. Given that women are a little over 50% of the population, you would think that it would be easy for them to get heard… Right? Now amplify that by the smaller community of active queer developers and gamers who want a little more respect and it should become clear what the scale of their problem is.

The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) recently ran into difficulties because one of the founders of Penny Arcade posted a string of Tweets that increasingly showed a lack of awareness of transsexuality. This resulted in one of the exhibitors making the following statement:

We are a four-person team. Two of us are women and one of us is gay. Gone Home deals in part with LGBT issues. This stuff is important to us, on a lot of different levels. And Penny Arcade is not an entity that we feel welcomed by or comfortable operating alongside.

Back to the original question about why queer people need a LGBTQ conference – when the major conferences feel so unwelcoming and that they misunderstand queer issues so massively, it is hard to create anything new or unique outside of heteronormativity and male privilege. All LGBTQ conferences welcome ‘allies’ from those outside the LGBTQ groups, just as E3 ostensibly welcomes diversity too, but when booth babes (women in small outfits solely designed to attract the dominantly male visitors to exhibitors’ stalls) are still permitted it is hard to feel that the event is anything but oriented towards a heterosexual male audience. That is the reality of the business model at the moment, so it is understandable, if sad, that these are the tactics being used, but it is equally understandable that a LGBTQ audience might feel that they are not wholly welcome in that environment.

5. Games don’t need queer people or ideas.

I lied at little at the start – this isn’t something I’ve seen said so openly, but it is the essence of every other argument I’ve heard, and in the end it is deeply flawed.

We are supposed to be working in an industry that values the creation of new and exciting ideas, but we are facing a problem: as the money spent to improve graphics begins to have smaller and smaller effects on the final game, the search for innovation must come from other areas. Gameplay mechanics are one area where innovation is possible, but new genres and really significant changes are becoming rare. Visual experimentation away from realism is another path we are taking, but most of all we are in a position where innovation is frequently being pushed onto the game’s narrative. This is a place where historically games have performed very poorly, but where there are proven examples of the same story being retold in new ways for hundreds of years…

And yet we are limiting ourselves. Time and time again, we are making the same story with exactly the same characters in near identical settings: a late-twenties to mid-thirties heterosexual man is on a quest of revenge for the death of his wife, set in a post-apocalyptic world (or building sites and sewers if it is the modern day).

The idea of ‘queer’ is very powerful here. In society, ‘queer’ means people who do not conform to ‘normal’ heterosexual behaviours and gender representations, but in games, where normal is even more restrictive. being queer becomes something more. It would be ‘queer’ to have an old person as the protagonist. It would be ‘queer’ to be gay. Or to not want to fight. Or to be a child. Or to be fat. Or black. Or Russian and not a criminal, Middle-Eastern and not a violent extremist, or Japanese and not a computer genius who is into robots. Or in a wheelchair. Sadly, it is often still queer to even be a woman.

I will always remember an anecdote from an essay by female queer theorist:

She was presenting at a conference on gay and queer issues in literature and had mentioned during her talk that she had a boyfriend. At the end of the talk a person in the audience asked ‘you’re in a straight relationship so what gives you the right to talk about queer stuff?’. She replied: ‘When I fuck my boyfriend with a strap-on it feels pretty queer to me.’****

Queer equality isn’t just there to improve the lives of people who are LGBTQ, it has effects on the quality of the whole industry’s output. In a situation where the prevailing attitudes of games culture is frequently aggressively heteronormative and male-oriented, even women become queer in the eyes of many gamers.

Like any good equality movement, progress in this area will be hard and there will be opposition, but in the end everyone benefits from a greater diversity of characters and relationships in our games. Getting this right will also not only make our stories better, but maybe the the story of the bisexual, polyamorous, black, Brazilian woman who works in a graphic design office will inspire some new gameplay mechanics too. What happens to games when we take away stories of men with guns out for revenge? What happens when pulling a trigger doesn’t fit with a character? When their movement is slow or limited? How do we tell the stories of the women, the downtrodden, the unusual, the people that we’ve never played, and people never dreamed of playing yet?

In other words, how do we play the stories of the queer? This sounds like the way to find new gameplay and make the industry better for everyone.

You know… That sounds so good, I think that someone should organise a conference about that.

*LGBTQ = Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer
**Cisgender = Your self-perceived gender is the same as your physical sex, for example a cisgender person would be cismale if they were born in a male body and feel male inside too, but a transgender person would be transmale if they were born in a female body but feel male inside. Also, I know there is controversy about the 10% figure, but by all admissions the research data on this topic is extremely hard to collect reliably.
*** Queer = over the past couple of decades, ‘queer’ has been increasingly claimed by individuals, groups, and academics as a catch-all term for people whose attitudes and expressions of sexuality do not fit the heterosexual and cisgender thought and behaviour model.
**** Sadly, I don’t have the book any more so I cannot look up the name of the writer or exact quote. To my surprise, Googling for queer women with strap-ons did not produce relevant research data.

New Fragments of Him video review from CinnamonToastKen

A prominent YouTube video game blogger has reviewed Fragments of Him. It’s nice that his entire coverage of the gay relationship is ‘So… You’ve got a male couple’, and that’s it, exactly as it should be. Thanks CinnamonToastKen!

Also, a very amusing namecheck for Fragments of Him in a video he posted a week later:

“I played Fragments of Him, which was about a homosexual couple, and it really didn’t have anything homosexual about it other than it said ‘him’ in the story, and that seemed to have bothered a lot of people… So I figured I’d just go and find the gayest game that I could since you’re a bunch of homophobes.”

(Starts about 10 seconds in.)

More Fragments of Him reviews…

We’ve been getting more fantastic reviews for Fragments of Him!

A lot of this has spoilers, so if you haven’t played the game then please take the time to play through it on Kongregate over here. It takes 10-20 minutes.

The latest reviews:

The story will keep on getting clearer as you proceed so, take your time, maybe grab a napkin and get ready to shed some tears.

http://www.creepygaming.net/2013/05/fragments-of-him-dealing-with-important.html

This next one is possibly my favourite so far:

This is one of the rare games where very few of the players are far off from tears — or, at the very least, most players seem to easily understand that inclination. That’s no small accomplishment for any artist, nevermind four European developers tinkering with a new style.

http://weirderweb.com/2013/05/13/what-to-play-today-fragments-of-him/

That reviewer also posted a really nice playthrough video in which he nails many of the ideas that I was trying to communicate in the game. It’s very fulfilling to see someone understand so many of the ideas that we were trying to convey. It contains the whole game, so if you haven’t played yet you really should check it out before watching:

Enjoy!

Giant Bomb reviews Fragments of Him

It doesn’t take much to cue the waterworks these days, but Fragments of Him, where a man tries to move on from a relationship shattered by a fatal car accident, hit home hard. The “game” part takes the common feeling of avoiding familiar people, places, and things that remind you of what you’ve lost, and makes it the core mechanic. Saying more about how it plays out is best left unsaid, except to provide fair warning to anyone who might be triggered by the game’s sensitive material. I had to walk from my desk.

http://www.giantbomb.com/articles/worth-reading-05-10-13/1100-4638/

Fragments of Him has been getting some good reviews…

So, a couple of weeks after making Fragments of Him in one weekend, the game has started getting reviews:

http://indiestatik.com/2013/05/10/fragments-of-him-deals-with-the-loss-of-a-loved-one/

http://indiegames.com/2013/05/browser_pick_erase_the_memory_.html

The game is also top of the list of ‘highly recommended’ games on Free Indie Games:

http://www.freeindiegam.es/2013/05/fragments-of-him-mata-haggis-tino-van-der-kraan-elwin-verploegen-henriette-sande/

I’ve also been contacted personally by the head of a very large games company (I won’t name them on here because I didn’t ask if I could credit the quote) to say how much he enjoyed the game:

It’s just so energizing to see original ideas thriving in games.

Suffice to say, we’re very happy with the response so far!