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Archive for the ‘Video-Games’ Category

I was watching a film the other night in which an 18 year old woman was preparing to marry her high-school sweetheart as he began a twenty year sentence in prison. In that moment, at 22, I sucked in my breath and hoped she would recognize the foolishness of her decision. I thought, “she will change so much in the next four years and has no idea what she’s signing up for, how she will change, who she and this man who is about to spend more time in prison than has been alive will change…”

But change is inevitable. Contemplating time, and its passage, I was brought back to my childhood of gaming. I worked relentlessly during college to make a name for myself, took on seemingly endless projects, and generally veered away from the media that raised me. I stopped gaming, and except for a few ill-fated runs of Tales of Vesperia and Chrono Cross, moved into the realms of people, parties, and social life.

FFVII

Following graduation I’ve played a little bit of a video game almost every day for the past three months. Persona 4 and FFXII, especially. You might have gathered that I like JRPGs. If you read this blog with semi-regularity you may also have gathered that I was born with Asperger’s Syndrome (they don’t use that term anymore technically, but it has always explained things neatly for me), am color-blind, fairly physically inept, and have manageable OCD. The masochistic nature of JRPGS, full of collecting and puzzles and side-quests, is perfect for me. Except, as is sometimes the problem with game design (or comic colors, movie subtitles), when it’s not.

And that can be all too frequently, unfortunately. I belabor the point about my abandoning games in college because it’s important to illustrate to the strong degree that video games raised me. Not metaphorically, either. They taught me curse-words, some very outdated ideals about sexuality and gender roles, how to read (thanks Pokemon and FFVII), and about the weird and wonderful world of genre-fiction. When one of the primary games that made you love JRPGs combines ancient races, summoning magic, cloning, AND psycho-analysis… well, you can imagine how a kid like that ends up where I am. A magna cum laude English Lit. student from a pretty good university, not a bad representation of how gaming really and truly can make us better people. In my case, as I usually played upwards of 8 hours of video games a day, they taught me nearly everything there was to know about how the world worked.

Video games were terrific for one facet of my personality, allowing me to explore human relationships on-screen as I attempted to learn them in the world around me. But any sort of puzzle game or color puzzle would frequently become extremely difficult for me. Even more-so, poorly lit or designed game environments were often so difficult I had to get my mom (or a friend, if I was lucky enough to have one) to help me beat that part and resume my play-through. From the bleak color-design of Metal Gear, to tiny red coins in Super Mario 64, and the genuine pain of the temples in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and assorted other titles. Playing the music in the Zelda video games has been a game-breaking experience for me, one relying on me to get others to help… and frequently I didn’t have anyone else. I could write an entire post on the frustrations of color-oriented chocobo breeding in FFVII or the low-contrast nature of the Midgar Zolom. The difficulty of color-oriented mini-games in Gold Saucer or low-contrast ones in Junon. The frustration and awesomeness that was Golden Sun and Golden Sun 2. The utter anguish I felt in color-oriented matches of Advance Wars. Sometimes I could laugh it off and get by. Sometimes I was genuinely perplexed. Without realizing it I often felt marked, distinguished as unable, and left out.

I know that color is an important part of design. And for the color-seeing world that must be a tremendous experience. A good friend of mine once suggested I start playing online games as he thought they’d help me socialize. Sadly, he didn’t realize that for many of those games the text flashes up in so many different colors it’s almost impossible to read, and does little to improve the situation when the text is tiny (and comes in overwhelming amount) or the “high-contrast” options are thoroughly limited. Having one “inverse-color” setting doesn’t help all people with color-related visual disabilities as there are a variety of different combinations which can create color-blindness. My color-blindness is total and effectively amounts to black and white. For me, the inability to navigate a game on my own often meant having to risk entering a potentially abusive environment just to get someone to help me. It felt limiting, frustrating, and contributed to the sensation that as a disabled person I had to rely on others even in the fantasy realms I so often sought to play in by myself. It’s called “play”, after all, because it’s supposed to be a world of your dreams and imagination. For me, the realms of Final Fantasy and Hyrule were so often just that, the architecture I would turn to as I grew older in an effort to understanding storytelling. In other moments, however, it was brutally unfulfilling and grounded me in the learned helplessness disability so often mirrors.

I’m not alone here, and I’m by no means the person most/worst affected by this scenario. Color is insidious. It’s embedded in everything, but rarely (at least in the gaming world) was a game-breaking experience. I didn’t usually need color to play Earthbound, but more contrast would have helped in Star Fox: 64 or might have made me feel more included in a game like Deus Ex or Goldeneye, where environments and textures were brutally low-contrast even with adjustment. I spent most of my childhood isolated from other disabilities and people in general. Becoming closer to a person with a latex allergy, who could only play Nintendo games because they were the only company to create non-latex controllers, helped me to understand that the same problems which plagued me in feeling included in my gaming glory affected lots of people. Sometimes in ways far more game-breaking than my own. Gaming was my environment for years, providing the only friends, inclusion, and social skills I was likely to get for most of my adolescence. But I have to wonder, as I contemplate the person I was trying to become in college, if it wasn’t the desire to escape my disability which paradoxically ingratiated me to and then pushed me away from video games. At 18, as I began to build a world where I was as good, if not better at my work than people with “able” bodies, did it simply become too frustrating to engage with games not built for me to succeed on my own?

I’m gaming again, and I’ve missed it so much. But I wish a rating system had existed, when I was reading Game Informer as a child or even surfing IGN now, to let me know a game had been designed with people like me in mind. I wish I could enter into a world knowing, even if I might not like everything I encountered within, at least I could conquer it on my own. Navigating the frustrating world of getting to a job or the grocery store without a car, dressing myself for social occasions, or seeing a movie in a movie theater is hard enough. In my room, so often my only temple, I’d like to be able to worship at an altar which welcomes me with open arms. Gaming has always been a friend, parent, lover, and mentor. I’m eager for the day it’s no longer an antagonist.

The inspiration for this article comes from this AWESOME Polygon piece: (http://www.polygon.com/features/2014/8/6/5886035/disabled-gamers-accessibility)

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(http://www.polygon.com/2014/8/1/5961171/zelda-ocarina-of-time-speedrun-explanation)

I just took a nice 25 minutes of my life to watch/listen to this Zelda speedrun of “Ocarina of Time”. This would be cool regardless, but I spent a ton of my childhood playing this game. In fact, I can remember my mother taking a check my grandmother sent me and buying it for me. The game was exhilarating. Not to mention that fact that just going through the Dodongo Cavern was SCARY, the game just oozed charisma and charm and warmth. It was heroic and exciting and beautiful. Growing up with this game, playing it with my best friend Danny and slowly beating the dungeons and getting the medallions was one of the best parts of my childhood. I’m not the sort of gamer that will ever understand these games THIS intimately, but they carry importance and weight for me.

I’m planning on writing a few things about the relationship between my autism and video games, but wanted to take a brief moment to write how wonderful it is that I live in a time period where video games exist. They are one of the few things I experienced in my childhood which made it bearable, livable, and most of all enjoyable. Life was only as good some days as the eight hours I got to spend on my Playstation or N64. To some that life may seem small. To me that life was everything. Watching someone master a game I loved and cherished was fun and exciting. I’d wager this game means just as much to him.

What a good time to live. What a good time for gaming.

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What I love about the world of “low-culture”, meaning things like video games, comics, alternative media, is the sense that the rules of engagement are always being re-realized. While more mainstream media rests comfortably in cliché and offense the world of “alternative” or “indie” media at least purports to some level of culpability and reflexive self-criticism. All the more interesting when overlooked mediums become cultural battlegrounds for issues of genuine cultural importance. Race. Sexuality. Representation. The deep-seated stuff that, yes, I guarantee you is dictating the course of important social issues from a top-down perspective.

Girl playing video games

If you’ve been following a bit of the big gaming buzz lately you might have caught wind of the major scandal surrounding Assassin’s Creed IV, its lack of female playable characters in cooperative play, and some charges of industry sexism towards developer Alex Amancio, who seemed uninterested and unsympathetic to the idea of creating viable female characters. When asked at E3 (the big gaming expo) about the decision not to include female character options for co-op he stated:

“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” Amancio said. “Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.”
(SOURCE: http://www.polygon.com/2014/6/13/5805510/assassins-creed-unity-patrice-desilets-ubisoft)

Twitter quickly responded with its retort. #womenaretoohardtoanimate
Yet, when industry insiders step up to the plate to address these issues things don’t always go so smoothly. I was certainly disheartened to read that Aisha Tyler, host of Ubisoft’s press conference at E3, was unwilling to acknowledge the systematic nature of male-dominated gaming and misogynist attitudes (so well-documented by Anita Sarkeesian in her videos regarding gaming and gender) in favor of paying lip-service to her company. It was frustrating enough that she cited Tomb Raider as a game of empowerment, effectively glossing over any of the sexist trappings of the game, but she also ignored the systematic prevalence of male-dominated gaming (both by industry insiders and game design itself).

“Obviously people can talk about the misogynist tropes in that game — her boobs were too big [and] she had on short shorts — but the fact of the matter is she was a badass, and a lot of men were playing as a woman for years and years,” she says.

(SOURCE: http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2014/06/15/322117682/aisha-tyler-tells-us-the-real-problem-with-gaming-and-diversity)

Indeed, pondering about the feasibility of rendering female character models has lead to all sorts of strange, sometimes gender-thorny statements. Like those of an ASCreed 3 animator who contemplated the true difficulty of making interchangeable character models and essentially labeling them as “different”. Suggestions such as this, or the idea posited by writer Sande Chen that gender pronouns in choose-your-own-adventure style romance games could simply be switched to fit whatever direction characters chose reflected a lack of creativity and nuance on the part of programmers. It was, essentially, a cheap and easy fix to a far more nuanced problem. Much like the idea of “not seeing race or gender” wall-papering over the complexities of representation and reducing them to mere function ultimately stunts, rather than fosters conversations of diversity.

(SOURCE: http://www.polygon.com/2014/6/30/5857026/game-story-he-she-male-female-characters)

And there we are, at a crossroads in which female bodies and characters have become so disposable that they’re literally viewed as a risk when discussions emerge for companies to select female protagonists. This, despite market research to the contrary which suggests that leaving women out of the gaming conversation isn’t just politically unsatisfactory, it’s bad business. Here’s some data:

40% of all gamers are women, and women over age 18 make up a larger proportion of the games market than boys aged 17 and younger.
(SOURCE: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=3757)

An earlier NPR article covering E3 suggests that online games are the next frontier and “nobody wants to play them with just 17 year old boys”. But women are consistently monitored in the world of online gaming as well. Part of the issue in single-player or cooperative non-online gaming is a lack of representation through which to play the story, or a lack of stories which transcend the world of traditional masculinity. Online, things are even more complex. I’ve had female acquaintances who have related to me the horrors of online sexual harassment in MMORPGs simply for playing as female or, even more frustratingly, for having an avatar name which implies femininity.
“Unfortunately, even in this fantasy setting, if you are a woman you still have to act a certain way if you want to be accepted. It’s strange that people can’t even shoot each other in a game, without following gender norms.”

(SOURCE: http://www.polygon.com/2014/7/2/5858898/analysis-gender-hypocrisy-in-online-games)

Tragically, these attitudes extend beyond consoles and computers to reflect real-life sexist inclusion in the video game competitive world. Conversations about the ESports community and the rise of male-only gaming tournaments as a means of establishing clear leagues, divisions, and of ostensibly (read: questionably) giving female players a space where they can develop their own niche of attention seems like cloaked sexism, or an institutionalized boys-club.

“The perception that gender-only tournaments can be helpful, especially in favour of female players, has been mixed on both sides. Gender segregation can help promote female players and potentially female interest, but there’s been no proof of correlation to make that an accepted reality.”

(SOURCE: http://www.polygon.com/2014/7/2/5864103/hearthstone-tournament-women-gender-segregation-blizzard)

Ultimately, I’m grateful for the fact that conversational channels can finally give voice to the attitudes inside of games and surrounding their culture which pervasively work against female players, characters, and agency. Recognizing systemic imbalances, I’ve learned, is the first step in actively working against them and rebuilding our society in a more gender-egalitarian fashion.

My mother doesn’t play video games, but she was the one silently watching over me as I plugged in consoles over the years. I know she didn’t always agree with what she saw on-screen, but she worked hard to make sure I learned the lessons of respect for women single-mothers so often understand best. I want her to know that I want the lessons she taught me reflected in the games we play, made by strong and talented women like her. Gaming has to recognize its lady problem. Gamers do to.

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I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Akira Toriyama’s first manga work Dr. Slump, but the magic of that particular tale was that Toriyama hadn’t created anything yet. He drew to draw, and every panel leapt off the page with excitement and energy. He would later carry that same creativity into his other work Dragon Ball, but the magic of that first creation, and the joy of drawing he expressed within it, would denote it as a fantastically creative piece of fiction. 

A lot of that same ingenuity and genuine desire to create is expressed in the original Final Fantasy. We’re all familiar with the tale of how Sakaguchi and co., realizing their company would go under, made the game they truly desired to play. They took a risk, and captured the hearts of an entirely new audience by pushing the boundaries of their genre. This same sense of creativity and boundary-breaking would carry on, and in fact embody many of the games over the following decade.

And so it occurs to me (as it must have to so many of you) that perhaps what is missing in the video game industry is that vital spark, that urgency and necessity to create that is born of of a real message for the audience. The games that truly captured my imagination were games that had a central idea to express to the audience, something ultimately to say.

I’m reminded, for instance of Chrono Trigger. A game that to me, seemed to nearly explode with creativity. There, the creators expressed a strong element of the will to survive, the power of friendship. There were stories of redemption and opportunities to make up for past mistakes. Truly inspiring, the game suggested that we as players had the power to enact immeasurable influence on our world.

I’m reminded of Vagrant Story, where the idea of minimalist story-teling was artfully combined with extensive attention to the dungeon-crawler. How Matsuno was unafraid to explore the darker aspects of story, and to disregard more casual-gamer friendly techniques in the search for a truly immersive experience.

I can’t help but come back to Earthbound. A game so indelibly laced with humor and fun. Where the designers couldn’t help but poke fun at themselves, American culture, and even the nature of the RPG itself. The more-serious than thou games of today could take a note from their terrific sense of self-parody. I still love how down to Earth (pun DEFINITELY intended) the game is, and that it made something so fantastic and sublime out of the joys of adventuring in childhood.

And how about FFIV? Or FFVI? One set the paradigm for the RPG, the other pushed it to the very limits of storytelling in the SNES era. What’s remarkable about these games is the sense of intent, the number of radical changes FFIV set forth in terms of storytelling and scope (we went to the freakin’ moon!) and the other threw those rules out the window all over again (no main hero? Restart the world? We’re tackling racism, here? ) without fear.

These were games with things to say. FFT wanted to push storytelling forward by channeling Marlowe and Shakespeare, FFVII plumbed psychological depths, FFIX angled for the nostalgia of old. The games that stuck with us were the ones with a mind-set. The characters we love (the tragedy of Terra, the psychosis of Cloud, guilt of Vincent and Frog, redemption of Magus and Cecil, charm of Harle and Jeff). Everything was defined, and whether it made or not (Xenogears comes to mind) the ambition had accuracy, and a real sense of ambition.

This isn’t a nostalgia-fest (at least I don’t want it to be), I’ve seen great stuff here. Demon’s Souls combined that Vagrant Story style gameplay with an interesting little tale. The Persona games have proven to have that same sense of ambition (what if we combined the everyday with the fantastic?) and succeeded brilliantly. Deus Ex gave me a game with inventive gameplay and a gripping, challenging storyline.

So tell me, remind me what it was we loved so much. Is it that sense of rule-breaking? Am I right that these old games had a real sense of purpose, something so visibly missing in so many modern RPGs (FFXIII and FFXIV take note, Dragon Quest games ported ad-nauseom). Is it something totally different? Am I just off my rocker?

Let’s talk about what we loved. Let’s figure out what’s missing.

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