Friday, June 02, 2006

A Steam-ing pile

I have been looking forward to playing Half Life 2 ever since I played the demo when it was released. Having recently been given a £30 gift voucher to spend at Game I bought the ‘game of the year edition’ today – how exciting!

Unfortunately what I thought would be a gaming dream turned into a nightmare once I got the game home and tried to play it. The installer first required that I install Steam, Valve’s online distribution and copy protection software. I installed it, along with the game, and then tried to play. I should mention at this point that we have just moved and are stuck with very expensive dialup (in phone bill terms) until the broadband kicks in. I started Steam and it spent 5 minutes updating itself. Then it spent another 20 minutes updating itself again. Then I had to sign up for an account, after which it finally loaded and started telling me how I could buy Half Life 2 and download it. The link to activate the product didn’t work (but fortunately the menu command did) so it must have been a good hour before I was able to even start putting in my serial number. However, I couldn’t start my game yet as Steam required that my game be updated. This took 1hr 30mins (remember I’m paying by the minute for dialup).

Finally, it was ready and I started Half Life 2, prepared to put aside my frustration with Steam in order to enjoy the game I have waited so long for.

However, this was not to be. It seems that disconnecting one’s modem while playing causes the game to crash. I am not prepared to pay 5p a minute to play a single player game I already paid £30 for so I have uninstalled and will try again once we get broadband.

If you are wondering how I feel about all this then I will tell you; I am fucking furious!

The box says “You must accept the Steam subscriber agreement (“SSA”). You must activate this product via the internet by registering for a Steam account and accepting the SSA.” I have no problem with that at all. If all I have to do is register and activate the product then that’s fine. However, I have reviewed the SSA and it does NOT say that you must be connected to the internet at all times in order to play this SINGLE PLAYER game, thus making the game unplayable for anyone on dialup (in the UK at least, where local calls are not free).

I must borrow the words of the Russian guards from NOLF2 to deliver my message to Valve; you’ve made me weeery mad!

UPDATE (11 June)
The broadband service has now started so I am a lot calmer about the whole Steam thing. I have re-installed everything and it only took 10 minutes or so to update. I still think the packaging should make it clear that the game is unplayable without broadband; it is very misleading.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

It's just a fantasy world

A lovely brouhaha erupted recently when some women dared to point out (1 | 2 | 3 ) that Oblivion shows only male characters in the class selection screen and race section of the manual, as well as giving female characters different starting stats.

Men were outraged ( 1 | 2 | 3 ). Although for the most part freely admitting that the women had a point, they characterized their concerns as too petty to bother about and treated them to a shower of verbal abuse for their presumption.

A common (but specious) argument seems to be that Oblivion is a fantasy world and therefore not subject to the prejudices existing in the real world, or if it is then it doesn't matter because no real people are hurt. This argument doesn't fly, and is in fact a very lame excuse for not dealing with the issues.

Tamriel does model the real world in a great many ways. The laws of physics are the same, races are obviously humanoid, two genders exist, trees and plants exist and look the same as those in our world (and have the same names in many instances). The architecture would not have looked out of place in our world a few centuries ago, nor would the clothing, armour or day-to-day items. The wildlife includes wolves, boar and deer. In fact, almost every aspect of the game is modelled (very realistically) on the real world.

Yes, I know that we don't have magic, daedra or vampires in our world, and these are of course fantasy elements, but the point I am making is that they are included on top of a realistic model of our world. This being the case, I would suggest that those playing the game are able to suspend their disbelief and become immersed in the game much more easily precisely because so many of its elements are familiar.

Because the game world is modelled on the real world, it is natural for the real-world prejudices and attitudes of the designers to be imposed on the game world. Unfortunately, for players, this is just another reinforcement of those real-world prejudices (and the last thing the people at Kotaku need is to have their misogynist views reinforced).

If you're still not convinced, how about this; in Tamriel no one is fat, or in fact anything other than a single body type. However, although body diversity seemingly doesn't exist in the game world, it clearly exists in the minds of the designers, as this excerpt from a letter found during one of the Dark Brotherhood quests shows:

"My beautiful Cae! My dearest daughter broke so many hearts when she was younger. But now that she's an officer in the Imperial Legion I'm afraid she's let herself go a bit. Not gotten fat! By Mephala, not that! But she's settled into a more... practical kind of look. Even a bit boyish, I guess you could say. So what I'd like you to do is get my Cae as much pretty "girl" stuff as you can. Flowers, perfume, Nord chocolate, that sort of thing."

Am I saying that Oblivion is a woman hating piece of shit game and no one should ever play it? Of course not! I love Oblivion and I think it's a really great game. However, just because the game does a better job than most of portraying women doesn't mean it is automatically exempt from further scrutiny. It is possible to congratulate Bethesda on their progress so far and still hope for better in the future.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Proposal and Request for Comments

Leisure Suit Larry would not score highly on the proposed rating system
I have an idea and I need some feedback on the details. I am setting up a site to rate the gender inclusivity of games based on a pre-defined set of criteria. I'll set out my thoughts below, and I would appreciate your comments (hopefully Haloscan should be working now and you should not see the Blogger comment page - any problems please email me at srednivashtar at fmail dot co dot uk).

What we are aiming to do
  • Create a place where women can find out what other women think of various games.

  • Review games from a feminist, gender inclusive viewpoint.

  • Encourage readers to review games they own through use of a standardised set of criteria.

  • Educate game developers on how they can increase the appeal of their games to women and expand their market.

The hope is that popularity will grow to the extent that game developers start to take notice and consider during production the rating their games will get on the site, making them consider gender inclusive design. The success of the site is dependent on having a sufficiently high readership and this is dependent on having reviews of a sufficiently high quality and number of games. This necessitates reader submission of reviews to keep the workload manageable. The content would be moderated by a small team of editors to ensure consistency of style. I personally think that the reviews should be written by women only, but in practice this would be impossible to enforce. The editors should all be women. Kat from The Geeky Feminist has agreed to be the editor in chief (please contact her if you would like to be an editor). My role will be administration and publicity.

The idea of having a standardised template is to ensure that the reviews remain consistent despite being written by many different people and to try to ensure that all key inclusivity issues are addressed in a systematic manner. I see the score being a percentage. There will be a total of 100 points available, broken down into key categories. This is where I really need help - defining those categories. Let me know what matters to you, what I've missed out, or what should not be included. My initial ideas are:

The name will be important - it should be easy to remember, succinct and descriptive. All suggestions are welcome. Kat and I have come up with these so far:

Feminist Game Reviews
Feminist Game Ratings
Gender Inclusive Games
Inclusive Game Reviews/Ratings
The Female Analysis

What type of games should be rated?
I think that if a particular section does not apply to the game under review, then that section should default to 10 points. Similarly, a reviewer does not have to complete all sections - there can be multiple reviews but only one rating, perhaps where ratings differ the final rating would be the average of them. If that were the case then a chess game would default to quite a high score, and maybe this is a good thing, as the absence of discrimination must surely be beneficial, whether it results from conscious planning or is simply impossible due to the mechanics of the game. This method would punish 'Bikini Strip Chess' while rewarding a plain Chess game.

1. Ratio of female to male characters - 10 points
This should cover PCs and NPCs. I think this might be scored a a percentage (e.g. if 50% of characters are female then score 5, if 80% are female then score 8). If there is no female player character then score in this section should always be zero. There are a lot of problems with this one, like should weight be given to the relative importance of characters (I think so) and if so how? There is also the difficulty of games like Rumble Roses XX which would get 10 points for having an all female cast. I have been thinking about this and I hope that because the system is broken down in to relatively small chunks it will be able to avoid being unduly influenced by any single point. In the case of Rumble Roses, it is not the inclusion of female characters that is objectionable (of course) but their portrayal. So, while it might get 10 in this section, it would get zero in most other sections.

2. Female representation (visual) - 10 points
Reviewer should consider how female characters are portrayed visually in the game, including appearance, clothing, posture and movement.

3. Female representation (behavioural) - 10 points
Reviewer should consider whether stereotypes of female behaviour are employed, particularly in respect of: intelligence, power, emotion, attitude, strength.

4. Representation of colour and race - 10 points
Reviewer should consider the proportionate representation and behavioural portrayal of women (and men) of colour in the game. Reviewer should also consider the appropriate representation of foreign characters.

5. Patriarchal blunders - 10 points
For example, I noticed when playing the Black and White 2 demo that at one point the consciences say something to the player that only makes sense if the player is male. Morrowind frequently refers to the PC as 'he' regardless of gender - despite the availability of a command to insert the appropriate word for the player's gender. This breaks immersion at the very least. These are the kind of errors that male designers just cannot catch with any consistency.

6. Marketing and corporate - 10 points
The review is not limited to the game itself, but could include the surrounding marketing campaign, box/website/manual art etc, as well as the corporate side of the developer/publisher, e.g. how many of the game team are women, how they treat their employees (is the work environment free of intimidation, how they handle maternity leave) etc. I would suggest that any non-zero score would have to be attribuable to conscious efforts on the developer's part to include women in the dev team and the target audience.

I think it would be appropriate for the reviewer to write a little about the genre and general gameplay of the game, although this would perhaps be better off in an introduction section. For the rest, I'm going with some very general headings from Sheri Graner Ray's Gender Inclusive Game Design.

7. Conflict Resolution Options - 10 points
Reviewer should consider the options open to the player in resolving conflicts. Are there alternatives to direct confrontation? E.g. diplomacy, stealth, disguise, use of other skills etc. Are non-lethal weapons available (if appropriate), e.g. tranquilizer darts, charm or paralysis spells? Is the game zero-sum? Is it resolved through direct competition? Does it include indirect competition or non-conflict based scenarios? Are 'mutually beneficial solutions' possible?

8. Reward and Gameplay - 10 points
Graner Ray suggests that scores and levels are not always the most appealing rewards to female players. Reviewer might consider whether alternative rewards are available. Graner Ray mentions the building of a system in the Sim games, having an effect on your followers in Black and White and the 'side quest' style activities in games like Ultima as examples of these. She also suggests that response to error is a factor. Games that forgive players for errors (e.g. by slowing progress temporarily rather than killing them) may be more appealing to women.

9. ...

10. ...

I've deliberately left 20 points available as I don't expect to be able to design this system without female input (I think we need to include 'story' in there somewhere). This first post is just to flesh out the ideas, the final template can only be made with the help of the female gaming community. There are so many questions to answer, like "how do you rate 'pink' games" but we have to make a start somewhere and I am prepared to be flamed.

The next step is to sort out a name and get a good idea of the structure, then pick 5 games to review and go for it.

So... what do you think?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Ninety-Nine Sexists

Inphyy from Niney-Nine Nights
Tetsuya Mizuguchi and SangYoun Lee discussed Ninety-Nine Nights at GDC, Gamasutra reports. While I found the discussion very interesting, the feature was rather ruined for me by one of Mizuguchi's comments:
"When I was Inphyy [pictured above], I liked her, she's cute and has a nice body. She has good cleavage, I threw that in for the player's sake."

I have noticed that offhand comments often reveal a great deal about what someone really thinks. This is precisely because they are considered 'offhand' and therefore bypass the 'what-you-can't-say' filter. With that in mind, let's take a look at what this particular comment might tell us.
  • He feels it necessary to explain why he liked Inphyy; not because of her skill, courage or prowess in battle, but because he'd like to do her.

  • As her designer, he ensured that she complied with the restrictions patriarchy imposes on women, and is proud of it.

  • He believes that having some tit on display will enhance the player's experience. From this we infer that he views players as exclusively male.

  • He believes in his right to define the female form, and in his games he does exactly that - makes women as he sees fit, for the enjoyment of men.

I think it is fair to say that Mizuguchi is a deeply sexist man, for which of course I do not blame him, but the partriarchy. Other comments he has made elsewhere seem to confirm this:

K: “What did you think of the Ulala porno?”
M: [smiles] “Yeah, we found that on the internet. We then watched the video in the company. We were like, ‘wow, let’s see that. Wow.’”
K: “Were you upset?”
M: “No. We were, ‘yeah!’ We don’t care about that. Because, I don’t know, maybe Sega called them. I don’t know.”
K: “But, you personally?”
M: “I don’t care. This is a porno video. Ulala is not Sonic. She’s cute and a little bit sexy. So that’s okay.”
K: “Sonic would be…”
M: “A bad idea.”
K: “You might get sick watching that.”

I have been thinking a lot about feminism lately, and unfortunately I must reluctantly recognise that, as a man, I can never fully understand what a woman goes through. It is hard enough to acknowledge my own male privilege, and shockingly easy to succumb to the temptation simply to lie back and enjoy the status quo. The rampant sexism in the games industry does not exist in isolation from the rest of society, it exists because of it. Any attempt at gender inclusive game design is laudable, but can only be driven by social change outside of the industry. However, as a supremely male dominated sector, it is a good place to see the effects of any changes and, sadly, to see how far we have left to go.

The hardest part will making men understand that really the only things we can do to help are:
  • Hire more women designers, programmers, artists etc.

  • Respect them.

  • Listen to them.

  • Learn how to be a real nice guy.

Any man talking about making games more appealing to women must recognise that the only people who can do that are women themselves. All we can do is use our male privilege to open the doors for them, and be prepared to give up that privilege.

As Guilded Lily so rightly says, sometimes it's not all about us.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Google Image Game!

Via the Geeky Feminist, a nice google image game.

Where I grew up:

Where I live now:

My first and last names:

My grandmother's name:

My favourite food:

My favourite drink:

My favourite smell:

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Too close to home

I followed a link to an American site that keeps track of registered sex offenders.

My partner and I lived in Ontario, California for nearly a year so out of interest I put in the address. I was quite shocked at how many sex offenders live in Ontario and the surrounding areas. I thought Pasadena was full of little old ladies! It seems the majority were convicted of "288(a) - Lewd or lascivious acts with child under 14 years".

I guess it's easy to think of sex crime as something that happens to other people (well I suppose for a man it usually is, but you get the point). Something like this site shows just how mistaken that belief is.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Users do the strangest things!

I saw my boss forward an email to the whole company in Outlook today. Nothing remarkable about that you might say, except that instead of clicking on ‘To:’ and bringing up the dialog where you can pick recipients, she mashed in “lkajhglisaws” as the recipient and clicked ‘Send’, then the dialog popped up and she selected the appropriate distribution list. WEIRD!

I was intrigued to note that she has managed to turn what is essentially an error handling behaviour into her normal method of selecting recipients.

Just goes to show that you can never know what a user will do, and that once they find a way that works they will continue to use it.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Gasp! The dreaded Starforce!

As I sat at my computer, idly reading about a nefarious copy protection program, I decided to run through the procedure to check I didn't have this software installed. Imagine my surprise when this procedure revealed said software lurking in the bowels of my machine. Naturally, I used my razor sharp teeth to excise the affected portion of my hard disk and the problem is now solved.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

What a mighty good man!

Have you seen this lovely commercial for the Peugeot 407 Coupe?

If you're like me you'll think it's a refreshing advert... right up until the punchline, after the woman's startled mouth pops open and suddenly you realise that all the women were hawt sexbots and the backing track is going on about how great men are.

For a while I wondered what it was supposed to mean. Men are back? From where? Surely one notable characteristic of a patriarchy is the presence of men?

The message has filtered through now: only real men drive shiny silver penis extensions. If you drive this car you'll have no competition from other men, the entire pussy pool will exist only for you.

According to a motoring site:

Dean Drew, director for advertising at Peugeot said, “The theme of the commercial is to show the 407 Coupe as a car that’s particularly ‘masculine’, not ‘macho’. In claiming, “Men are back” we wanted to reaffirm male values, rather than male domination. We assume the humour will be appreciated by men just as much as women”.

However Peugeot’s PR team this week were quick to point out that whilst 75 per cent of customers who bought the previous 406 Coupe were men, they fully expect more women to be attracted to their new and more glamorous 407 Coupe models which will be in showrooms at the end of January.

I love how they 'assumed' that the 'humour' would be appreciated by women. What humour? I think they mean the objectification. Do male values really need reaffirming? Everyone knows what male 'values' are in this patriarchy (male domination), just as everyone knows what women's 'values' (being submissive objects) are.

Although this ad is aimed at men who wouldn't necessarily buy into the "big macho pickup truck" idea of male dominance, it's still male dominance however you dress it up.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Abstinence Only

New link on the sidebar to a very informative site helping spread the word about abstinence only sex education.