Hey, you! Violence-lover! With the video games! Put that controller down and listen to me, if you can curb your insatiable blood-lust for five seconds. Yes, I can hear you scoff already. Bah! This fool thinks that just because I enjoy video games, I am a violent person! Fancy book-learnin’ people say this is not true! Howsoever that may be the case, let’s talk, you and I. Let’s talk about power in video games. Because you as well as I know the feeling of relief and satisfaction after a harrowing confrontation with a boss (of the mini- or regular variety), the final piece of a puzzle clicking into place, that escort mission finally being the hell over… that feeling is one of the greatest pleasures in gaming. In fact, it may be the single greatest pleasure of all. I remember when I had to dodge an attack helicopter on a rickety, merc-filled train on my quest for Shamballa in Uncharted: Among Thieves. When I pulled a Star Destroyer down to the planet surface in The Force Unleashed. Pretty badass! Or when I pulled the sun god’s head off and used it as a flashlight during my ascent of Olympus in God of War 3. Hah. Hey, you starting to notice something there?
No no no, I am not here to decry violence in gaming. A bit of violence in popular entertainment never hurt anybody who wasn’t a collection of pixels or an underappreciated minimum-wage stunt man. It has the power to be thought-provoking, cathartic, or sometimes just plain old fun. It ain’t real, and we all know it’s not. I am here to point out the inordinate focus on traditionally “male” values in AAA blockbuster games.
Power. Strength. Individualism. When you get right down to it, what exactly do you have to do in most of these big games? Conquer something, literally or metaphorically. You have to beat a bad guy, you have to beat the opposing team, you have to be the first in a race, destroy the other guy’s base.
I’m perfectly aware of indie games that buck this trend. Flower, Journey, The Path. Hell, I’ll even throw in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. But these are all games on our radars – gamer radars. Mainstream gaming is a bit like mainstream cinema. If you’re not exactly a film buff, you’ll maybe see one, two movies a year. Odds are, it won’t be the new Dardenne brothers joint but rather The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or something. Stuff meticulously calculated to hit the broadest possible market. What does this translate to in gaming? I work in education, and the few times in casual conversation with students that video games have come up, teenage boys don’t talk to me about Braid, they talk about Call of Duty or FIFA. What is escapist entertainment but a reflection of real life aspirations, blown up to incredible size, forever chasing that cathartic conquest-high? The sad reality of today’s society is that, when left to their own devices, boys will do anything they can to appear strong and cool and awesome. Assertiveness, even aggression, is encouraged. Professional sports would be nowhere without the societal fostering of these emotions and the specific attribution of them to “traditional” masculinity – and lest you think me the sports-averse internet type looking for a straw man, my partner and I greatly enjoy the physical rush of a good work-out. There is power and individualism and conquest there, and a catharsis that works equally well for all genders. I greatly think there is room for these very human needs in one’s life in moderation. Unfortunately, the result of society stimulating an individualistic attitude in boys and an altruistic, caring one in girls results in the all too well-known refrain of young male athletes’ transgressions, borne of a carefully nurtured individualism and entitlement through decades of exposure to such narratives, being swept under the rug for a “promising career”.
Mainstream video games are very guilty of adding to this narrative. You need only look at the recent big release of watch_dogs by UbiSoft. In it, you play hacker Aiden Pearce, a white man with a propensity for wearing face-covering neckerchiefs (gotta get dat total player projecti—uhh IMMERSION that’s what we mean yeah). He is on a path of righteous vengeance after the evil corporate overlords of a near-future Chicago cause the death of his young niece in retaliation for Aiden’s rogue hacker ways. From the watch_dogs wiki:
Aiden is a Caucasian male with green eyes, brown mid-length hair, and light facial hair. While having his mugshot taken, it is shown that he is 6 feet 2 inches tall and appears to be of mesomorphic build. Aiden normally wears a grey, long-sleeve, zip-neck sweater, usually un-tucked. On top of the sweater, Aiden wears a modern, brown, knee-length trench coat. Aiden wears dark grey trousers and brown boots. He also has a deep, gravelly voice.
Whoa, I can’t wait to play this scintillating protagonist who will no doubt transport me to a wondrously interesting world, exposing me to his fascinating points of view! Or, you know, we could go kill some dudes cuz they killed a girl. Plenty of reviewers seem to find that, even while still proclaiming watch_dogs a perfectly serviceable and fun game, it doesn’t do much with the intriguing premise of a cyberpunk city’s digital infrastructure being at your command. John Teti over at The AV Club writes:
Ubisoft Montreal began five years ago with the idea of a city being subsumed by the grid—a premise that pulses with complexity and relevance—and it’s hard to say that the final product represents a development of that idea. No, this game is the product of a devolution, an industry process that shrinks and contorts a concept until it fits into one of a few pre-fab genres.
The title of Teti’s review itself is telling: “watch_dogs takes a great idea and bludgeons it with normality.” A creative idea forced into an ever-more compromised final product is not a concept strange to geeks, but it seems a particularly “video game” like thing that the “normality” the original idea is compromised into is a framework of violence perpetrated by a lone, angry white man as vengeance for the death of a girl he feels responsibility towards. All pretty fresh stuff I’ve never seen before, I must say! From Dan Whitehead’s Eurogamer review:
This is a game where you can empty the bank accounts of strangers on the street simply by holding down a button, yet cannot interact with the numerous homeless people begging for change. Aiden tuts at the invasions of privacy he discovers while digging inside the city’s systems, yet is privy to far more personal data every time he scans the pedestrians around him looking for useful info to swipe.
This is also one of the most highly anticipated games of the year. And no, of course it doesn’t inherently say violence or aggression is good. But it does offer up as fun, mainstream, escapist entertainment the idea of being a powerful white man conquering others in revenge for the same having been done unto you, without much introspection on this issue apparently being required. Entitlement and self-styled moral righteousness though? Check and check!
Again, I am not decrying the very existence of individualist, violent power fantasies. They’re fine! Big Grand Theft Auto fan over here! Nor do I specifically want to target watch_dogs, by all accounts a perfectly fun and mechanically solid game. And just like proponents of the application of the Bechdel test don’t necessarily want to push us to a future where every movie has two named female characters who talk about something besides a man, I don’t want all games to turn into The Sims or Tetris to promote a less aggressive worldview. It would be a nice option though, wouldn’t it?
One of my favorite examples to bring up in this (to many eye-rolls from my friends who must have heard me extol the virtues of this game a billion times – I apologize to you all) is CDProjekt’s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Yes, you are a monster hunter out for revenge and yes, a whole lot of killing is necessary. Yes, you are a white, heterosexual badass whose appearance customization is limited to hair styles (free ‘n easy elf-style, baby!). Yes, “hunter” and “revenge” seem to be some telling keywords there. But at all times, the game gives you the option to go for a compromise. Have to go kill a troll because he’s been neglecting his bridge-upkeep duties? Why not hear the troll’s side of the story? There are some necessary “narrative bottleneck” moments since video gaming, unlike the lovely table top kind, is limited by what’s coded into the software, but Witcher 2 really does allow for a stunning variety of options. It’s the only game I’ve ever come across that allows you to actually forego a final boss battle! And for all its controversy, Mass Effect 3’s ending allowed you the option to “synthesize” with your enemy. Even if this option wasn’t there (the other two options at that particular junction are literally “annihilation” or “control”), Mass Effect allows you to craft your own specific avatar for your personal escapist power fantasy. There are of course many games with character creation mechanics, I just like to point to Mass Effect for its great big fanbase of Jennifer Hale’s rendition of the protag Shepard, affectionally referred to as FemShep. You’d think that a multi-million dollar franchise power fantasy with a protagonist malleable in almost every way to better cater to the player’s needs would depict this player avatar in a most neutral way possible, right? Well… it took BioWare – generally quite a popular developer for its inclusive and diverse content – until the third Dragon Age game to have gender-neutral box art. Only five years into a franchise that had gender-malleable player characters from day one! FemShep (you know, the one with the fanbase) was totally on covers before that, of course… if you flipped them around.
Video games are fantasies, and fantasies come in many shapes and sizes. Power fantasies are a perfectly valid form of indulgence. Unfortunately, the mainstream market doesn’t allow for all of these shapes and sizes too often. By focusing marketing campaigns of games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age or Elder Scrolls on their Stubbly Whiterson-McBrobeard protagonists – and in most cases of games without character creation, having straight white male be the immutable default – the games industry is sending an implicit message that these power fantasies are for young men. Allowing for a multitude of options in character creation as a standard will buy so much good will. Yes, I am advocating for rudimentary character creation in as many AAA games as possible. You wanna be a power fantasy? Be a power fantasy for everyone. On the other end of the spectrum, allowing for a multitude of options in story-based games, including compromise or even acquiescence (what if the troll really has a good point), will make video game experiences more rich and rewarding in the end.
AAA games are always looking for that quick high, to get that feeling of conquest and victory rushing through you. After all, if a game made you feel powerful, wouldn’t you like to revisit it in future instalments perhaps? And if they got that feeling out of you in sufficient numbers on the first try, why change too much? Look at it this way: I love Crank, but what if all movies were Crank? The human body just wasn’t built for that amount of epinephrine.
Luca Saitta is a friend to all nerds, especially those who love Trioculus and Gabara. Follow him on Twitter as @servantofdagon or visit his super cool blog at www.whollyonthelevel.com.