...And all the men and women merely players.
A blog about the state of gaming and technology

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hey Baby Redux

Since I made that Hey Baby post a while back, I keep running into things that make me think about it and feminism in games more.  So here's a roundup of a bunch of little thoughts I've had.

First, here's a response to the game from a feminist writer. Again, I don't really feel qualified to judge this from a feminist perspective, so I'm not going to talk about the article. Here's a response to the response, though. And that second article makes me feel vaguely ashamed for even criticizing the game at all. In fact it sort of makes me ashamed to be male, and maybe even human. But I think it definitely supports one of my points from the original post quite well: if you let your critics speak freely, they can sometimes be the best argument for your cause.

Next, there was this thing a co-worker pointed me at. It's an announcement of a women-only tournament associated with the Evo Street Fighter tournament. This is really interesting to me. It seems like perhaps the tournament organizers felt they had an environment that wasn't welcoming to women, and needed to create a safe space to allow women to feel comfortable competing.  Reading the comments attached to the announcement, I can see why they felt this way - but it makes me sad. I've always been slightly unhappy about sports having woman's divisions, golf courses having different tee-off spots, and my gym having different target weights for lifting for women and for men. It seems unnecessarily divisive,  and permanently relegates women to being considered less than men by default, even though any professional woman can easily outmatch an amateur man - and often professional men, as well.  I thought that videogames and e-sports, at least, would always be safe from this. But apparently not. I don't really blame the organizers for this; the fact that they included transgendered women indicates to me that their heart is in the right place. And I don't know enough about the problems they were trying to solve or the Evo tournament scene to say anything really insightful. But it made me think about the hostility of gaming environments, even face-to-face ones, to women players.

Another thing that made me think was the set of movies I went to Friday night. I had this planned far in advance of my "accidental feminism week", BTW.  There's an event at the Castro theater called "Midnites for Maniacs" where a film scholar screens under-appreciated gems in 35mm for a large audience, including a midnight showing (hence the name). The attitude behind these screenings is really interesting, and might deserve it's own blog post - these are B movies, schlocky or schmaltzy movies, or worse, but they're screened with an attitude of "neo-sincerity" or "post-irony". The audience is not supposed to enjoy these movies ironically, but with actual appreciation for the things they bring to the table.  But anyway, the relevant thing about Friday's showing was the theme: "She-roes". It started with A League of Their Own, went on to Jennifer's Body, and ended with The Legend of Billie Jean.  There was also a trailer shown for Ms 45. All of these movies featured strong women characters, generally oppressed or harmed in some way by men, who ended up getting cathartic revenge of one kind or another.  Present were also some actors from League and Diablo Cody, the screenwriter of Jennifer's Body.  Cody in particular had some really interesting things to say about her movie, making me appreciate it much more than the first time I had seen it. I think I could do another whole post on the sexual power dynamic in Jennifer's Body - but that's not what I'm writing about today! Stay on topic!

What was interesting about these three movies in light of Hey Baby was that the 'revenge' of the women was something to be celebrated by the audience, and I definitely felt caught up in that feeling as well. In League, a movie about the historical creation of women's baseball teams during WWII, there's a point at which one of the women is taunted by a male audience member and she hits him with a strong, painful-looking pitch. It was gratifying and funny, despite being physical violence.  However, most of the 'revenge' in the movie comes from the women proving themselves to be equally as skilled and entertaining as men when playing the traditionally male sport of professional baseball - sort of a societal comeuppance, rather than a personal one. In The Legend of Billie Jean, a young woman is tricked, lied to, and almost raped by a sleazy shop owner. She goes on the lam with her brother and her friends, and her cause becomes a movement (heavy-handedly) inspired by Joan of Arc. Women cut their hair short and join her cause with a rallying cry of "Fair is fair!" Although she gets some measure of personal revenge in the end by humiliating the man, again the revenge is mostly societal.

Ms 45 was different - and when I saw the trailer, I instantly thought "Wow, it's Hey Baby the movie!".  The trailer shows a woman getting catcalled repeatedly by men, and eventually attacked. Then it shows her arming herself, and going on some sort of rampage against would-be rapists. There's also a part where she dresses as a nun? Honestly, the plot thread is sort of hard to follow through the trailer. But it's obviously a cathartic revenge-fantasy exploitation movie, and despite the neo-sincerity doctrine, it looked as though it would be hilariously entertaining to watch. So... Why do I feel differently about Hey Baby?

A little while ago I heard the director of 24 disclaim responsibility for his audience being more accepting of torture due to the show's embrace of it as a valid intelligence tactic.  I don't believe him, personally - it's pretty obvious that TV has the power to make people change their moral outlook, or perhaps just accept a moral doctrine that they had no thoughts about previously. Their new default, basically. I think this is something we can all see around us in human behavior, and recognize in our society and in ourselves. Humans tend to, when they don't know what to do, look around to see what everyone around them is doing. Then they attack those who aren't behaving in the same way as everyone else. It's probably some sort of evolutionarily-valuable learning trait, or something. But these days it makes advertising possible and high school hell. It also makes us, in some cases, take our own moral compass from television - or perhaps video games?

I'm firmly in the camp of believing that anyone who claims to be made murderous by a video game is instead personally responsible for their actions. The same of TV.  But at the same time, I find myself looking at Hey Baby and games like it, and thinking "Well, this isn't a good place to calibrate our moral compass. This is not something I want people to believe is OK."  So where does that line get drawn, then? On what level do we have a responsibility as creators to ensure that our art doesn't somehow create a societal environment in which bloody revenge (or torture for information) is acceptable?  By setting up unrealistic expectations of "ticking bomb" scenarios, are the creators of 24 at all morally culpable when a senator cites the show as reason to allow torture of prisoners?

If you could know ahead of time that a game you made would later be used to justify some horrible law, would you want to make the game?  And on the flip side of that, would you be happy making games that didn't have that power? If you could make all the SimOcean games you wanted and it never affected oil drilling regulations, or the way people thought about the relationship between man and the sea? Either we have that power, or we don't, and I don't think we want to turn it down. I think in order to have a meaningful art form, we want to embrace the responsibility of our soap boxes.  And I do think we have the power to effect change. In fact, I think games have much more power to effect change in the world than TV or movies do. And I think that's why Hey Baby rubbed me the wrong way and Ms 45 doesn't. I think it can convey a message of violent retribution as the answer to catcalling much more easily and viscerally than any movie ever could.

Of course, I still think that the ultimate moral responsibility for playing Hey Baby and going on a real-life man-hunting spree would rest with that player, not with the game. But when you imagine all the ways in which your art can convey a message, it's worth pondering the deeper, more thoughtful expressions of gameplay and content, and the ultimate change you're aiming for if your work were to make a lasting broad impact. And perhaps that's the goal to aim for - "Play the change you'd like to see in the world."

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