Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Process Writing (Just a Short Reflection)

I guess when it comes to the writing of the pieces this quarter, I’m not really sure what to say. For the vast majority of the articles, it was really just a process of viewing the event, taking notes, reading the chapter in the book, and then sitting down and, well, writing. I can say that I especially enjoyed doing both the music event and book reviews, as I love both forms of art. I was pretty neutral on film and theater reviews, and the only one that I did not particularly enjoy was the art exhibit review. Part of it is the fact that I’m really picky about visual art, and the other part was that I quite honestly did not really know much about the technical aspects of it, and the book did not help terribly much. Other than that, it was just a matter of figuring out ordering of information and word choice as I wrote, which I more-or-less did on the fly. I think the most difficult part of writing was figuring out how I should structure the piece.

I have particularly enjoyed the final project. I think the most enjoyable aspect of that was doing the research into it. It allowed me to read a bunch of articles on the subject of sexism in video games in order to both learn new things and to gather information for the article itself. It was just fun to do. The writing itself progressed pretty smoothly, all things considered. I ended up just sort-of rattling the draft off, and once we did the in-class workshopping (which was immensely helpful), it was just a matter of changing things around and normal edits. I don’t necessarily know if I would call it challenging, but it was time consuming. However, it was fun, so it made it seem like not too much work, really. Overall, I would not call the articles difficult, but I would call some challenging, depending on the knowledge base going into it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sorry, Mario, but Your Princess is in Another Castle

At the dawn of video game design, there was no story; from Pacman to Asteroids to Pong, the burgeoning field of entertainment focused solely simplistic play and plot. However, as technology and the art form developed, the need for a plot-driven narrative arose in order to captivate audiences and to give them incentive to play through their games. The motivation to save a princess, the so-called “damsel in distress,” became a driving trope, among others such as hyper-sexualized physical depictions, behind female representation in video games, creating a lack of strongly written realistic portrayal of femininity that stretches even to today. 
No sexism here!

 Perhaps the most classic and most recognizable example would be of the Mario franchise. You have Mario, the burly (if diminutive) plumber, as he ventures through the mythical Mushroom Kingdom to save the forever imprisoned Princess Peach. This is the sole motivation that drives the player through almost every title in the franchise. The same can be said of other titles in the same era. In the Legend of Zelda franchise, the player (Link) must battle the forces of evil to save Princess Zelda. Dragon’s Lair (1983) has Dirk the Daring face off against the evil denizens of the evil wizard Mordroc’s castle and Singe the dragon in order to rescue the Princess Daphne. In Double Dragon (1987), fighters Billy and Jimmy crush hordes of generic thugs to find their mutual love interest, Marian (the epilogue actually pits the two against each other for her favor).  Unfortunately, the trend continues even to today.

Long has this trope been employed in stories, even prompting Russian scholar Vladimir Propp to categorize the “princess or prize” as one of the seven iconic character archetypes in all storytelling. However, through the turn of the 20th Century to the modern day, feminist movements to redefine female portrayal in the media have all but failed, as the trend is only just starting to be broken, especially in games.

In a 2012 study conducted by Electric Entertainment Design and Research, referred to as EEDAR, concluded that in “a sample of 669 games that had protagonists with discernable genders, only 24 had exclusively female protagonists.” This included games that gave the player options to choose gender in a character creation. That said, the woman continues to be the object of desire or weak, as opposed to an empowered protagonist in a mire of hyper-masculinized leads.
This is generally what happens.

In Resident Evil 4 (2005), the President’s daughter, Ashley (of course in sweater and miniskirt), must be saved from the parasite-ridden Ganados. She is largely absent for the first half of the game, whereas the latter portion is comprised of an extended escort mission, protecting her from the hordes of enemies as she does little but hide. The developers of the most recent Tomb Raider reboot designed the character around the idea that male players would want to protect her. If the character isn’t created as an object or to the point of  being defenseless, she is sexualized to the point of absurdity, which brings these unrealistic portrayals full circle from social to physical issues.

If the female character is not kidnapped, then she is most likely physically capable, but she may have Barbie-like proportions or at least a skimpy outfit. The most infamous example of this, in addition to the probable origin of this trope, is the development of the Lara Croft from the original Tomb Raider. In the initial creation of the character, designer Toby Gard desired to depict a more realistic female body, but accidentally increased the breast size to 150%, which the rest of the design team argued to keep. This set the standard for myriads of other female character designs.

Fighting games are quite probably the worst offenders in this type of sexist portrayal. The Mortal Kombat franchise features characters like Sonya Blade in short-shorts and a tank top, in addition to many other skimpy outfits that reveal lithe figures and large busts rather than features that might befit anyone who routinely has to fist-fight to the death. Soul Calibur is another huge offender, especially in the case of Ivy, whose breasts are so large, it is hard to think that she could comfortably walk, let alone fight. Her outfit is another issue entirely. It is difficult to even call a singlet given how much skin it shows, especially in comparison to the fully-clothed and sometimes armored men.

Who wouldn't want to fight in that?

While the depiction of women historically has been absurd in games, there has been a refreshing trend of change recently. The Mass Effect trilogy not only allows for the choice between a male and female protagonist, both are equal amounts of badass, trouncing aliens and generally being the most un-killable death machines in the galaxy regardless of gender. It should also be mentioned that the proportions of Lara Croft in the reboot have been altered back to a somewhat believable state (it seems like that entire franchise is bogged down with these issues). Many writers are calling out this entire travesty in outrage, which is thankfully holding the industry responsible and putting on the pressure for change.

Now men and women can rock the steely gaze and armor that makes sense.

 While this change is long-coming and a slow process, a start is a start. Many facets of character design are mired in this concept of sexist depiction, and so it must be an industry-wide revolution. Video games, as a medium, are still young, though, so even though it is necessary that these changes be made, the fact that is starting to occur quickly in comparison to other media is wonderful. Video game companies are finally being held accountable for their actions thanks to critics, and so, while it is only just starting to emerge, hopefully more games will provide a more realistic approach towards women in their scope. The historic record of women in video games is atrocious, but up-and-coming titles will have to fight this trend in order to give women a fighting chance in the traditionally sexist and patriarchal world of video game narratives and design.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

From Fact to Fiction: "The Submission"

In the subsequent years of post-9/11 America, it is perhaps too easy to point out that so-called “Islamophobia” that followed was rampant and fueled by a myriad of inflammatory sources. Amy Waldman’s The Submission takes this simple premise with a hypothetical scenario, and she runs with it, seamlessly blending politics, media, and, most importantly, public opinion in an attempt to illustrate the complexities of race and religious politics.

The city of New York is faced with building a memorial to the terrorist attack, and it is left to a panel of jurors to decide the winning design. However, when the final pick is revealed to be Mohammad Khan, the city is faced with its most vitriolic war of rights since the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Given the historical context, it could happen. It is in Waldman’s “show, not tell” approach that takes her first novel above self-righteous high thought, demonstrating the complexity of every issue through dynamic character interactions.

It is the characters themselves that make the novel a compelling read. Each one is uniquely written, as if Waldman brought her interviewing experience as a reporter in force; each character, however minor, is his/her own being, which pounds the premise of individuality in the novel home. Waldman also uses her powerful command of the English language in every sentence, guiding the reader smoothly through every encounter and every description.  

However, this only works up to a point. As tensions increase over the course of the novel, Waldman results to using a one-by-one public account of each potential issue of using Khan’s design. Although it was probably meant to give the illusion of depth in the fictional trial, it ended up feeling cheap and contrived. The other large hole was the character Alyssa Spier, the journalist. The media did play a large shape in public opinion, but Spier’s presence generally resulted in an article by her that plodded the plot along if things got slow. Everyone loves a little drama, but it grew tiresome astoundingly fast.

Even with the occasional stumble, Waldman pulls off a thought-provoking tale on one of the most controversial topics of the last decade. The novel flows organically in most cases, with the occasional Spier appearance to push things along at the speed of plot. Waldman’s first foray into fiction proves to be a success, even if it is slow at times.