Tag Archives: Queer theory

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’.


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!

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.

‘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.