Tag Archives: feminism

Smashing Plastic Guitars (And The Patriarchy): My Confusing Journey Into Guitar Hero and Emergent Narratives

Last month, I finally bought Guitar Hero III.  With a used guitar from Amazon and an old PC copy, I was able to load up and play a game that I had never actually owned, but nonetheless had held enormous sway over two years of my gaming life.  Rhythm gaming disappeared almost as quickly as it rose to prominence, so Guitar Hero III, for me, remains the untarnished pinnacle of that genre.

At first, I played it as a way of revisiting childhood experiences. I completed the career mode on medium without much difficulty in a few hours, enjoying the songs, style, and 300px-Judyhealthy nostalgia trip.  After completion, I almost immediately packed up the guitar and left it to lounge in my closet.  But two weeks ago, I picked it up again, this time playing on hard mode as Judy Nails, a punk rock girl who emanated goth culture and 90s grunge.  This didn’t change the gameplay in any way, only what avatar was displayed rocking out on screen.  Overall, it wasn’t that different from my first playthrough.

That was until the second stage of the game.  My band had just completed their first real gig, playing a set of songs in a run-down bar to a small but energetic crowd.  As we closed the last song, a 3D-rendering of Tom Morello, a guitarist from the angsty, rap-metal band, Rage Against The Machine, emerged to face off against my character in one of the game’s iconic guitar battles.  I knew and guiltily enjoyed the song, so I prepared myself to play.  However, before the battle began, something caught my eye.  The camera panned left to focus on a leather-clad woman, clearly a stripper, as she walked onto the stage in the beginnings of a T-rated, but clearly suggestive dance.  The crowd went wild, and the game took a slice of time out of my performance to focus on hers, which continued throughout the song.  I had played this game dozens of times at friends’ houses in the past, and once again a week before, but somehow I hadn’t given this section much thought.  Yet, for some reason, even though it had no direct impact on the game whatsoever, my position of playing as Judy Nails made this stand out to me.

I unconsciously began to wonder how she would have felt about this.  Seeing another woman that blatantly objectified must have been alienating, unsettling and disorienting.  This stripper, and the way the crowd and camera treated her, established women as an object.  Judy Nails’ role as the protagonist made her a subject.  The two were clearly in conflict.

But that wasn’t how I framed those thoughts.  This wasn’t a removed defense of Judy Nail’s emotions.  No, this bothered meI felt alienated.  I felt objectified.  And I was pissed off.  I was about to battle against an incredibly skilled guitarist, in a head-to-head that would launch my character’s career into greatness.  Yet the game chose to focus on a 322px-Judy_Nailsstripper, something that, yes, likely would have made the fictional Judy Nails uncomfortable, but, more confusingly, made me feel uncomfortable, in a way it hadn’t every other time I had played the game.  How could I fight my way to the top of rock ‘n’ roll, if this stripper was standing right in front of me, with others dancing in cages behind her, symbolizing a level of unapologetic objectification that held women back in the medium and in the world?  These weren’t the empathized feelings of Judy Nails, they were my feelings.

I didn’t have time to process this, nor the myriads of other problematic presentations of women I would soon notice in the game, because seconds later, a torrent of notes came flying down the game’s virtual fretboard.  Both the computer-controlled-Morello and I played wickedly difficult progressions, producing a chaotic ballad of record-scratches and distorted guitar riffs.  The song was difficult enough that it consumed all of my attention, leaving none to consider The Stripper and the implications of her presence.

But I was angry, not in a way that was clear and focused, but cloudy and saturating.  This let me reach a level of flow in play that balanced detachment and engagement, shaping my actions to a reflexive perfection I rarely experienced.  As the song barred forward, with us neck and neck in points, I slowly began to accumulate more of the game’s power-ups, special abilities that would mess up the opposing player, and I used them sparingly.

3616-active07guitarhero3-wii-00This wasn’t conscious strategy, but an automatic response.  Before, I had seen guitar battles more as a special stage to perform on, instead of a battle with a clear opponent.  But this time, I had an enemy.  It wasn’t Tom Morello, I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, it wasn’t Neversoft, the game’s developer, and it certainly wasn’t that stripper.  It was something I couldn’t clearly define, certainly not while playing a song on a difficulty level I had absolutely no reason to be playing on.  But I was angry at something.  I couldn’t define it, but I knew it when I saw it, and I knew that I needed to defeat it, not for someone else, but for me.

And I did.  As the digitized Morello began his ending solo, signaling the beginning of the “death drain”, which would lose me the battle, I thrust my guitar into the air, activating my carefully curated power-ups.  Digital Morello’s difficulty level was increased to expert, each note he had to play was doubled, all of which flashed on and off of the screen sporadically.  He failed the song in a matter of seconds.

I shouted an adrenaline-filled cry of victory.  I had defeated an honest-to-god bad guy.  I didn’t know what that was, or what it meant, but I knew I had done something.

The virtual crowd roared in approval at our performance, demanding an encore.  Rage Against The Machine’s iconic Bulls On Parade was loaded up, and, before I could reflect on the experience, I was thrust right in.  Despite feeling the thrill of an undefined victory, I still felt a simmering anger that permeates many of Rage’s songs.  Bulls on Parade is very much a song about fighting the system, and now, I had a system to fight.

For the rest of that playthrough, I wasn’t just embodying someone who loved music with a passion, I embodying someone locked in a battle against a culture.  I started to notice characters with the same character model as The Stripper in nearly every other stage, many of them in cages.  I started to notice how there were maybe three songs in the game guitarhero3slash1124with a female singer.  I started to notice how my character didn’t appear in the pre-rendered cutscenes.  I started to notice how, aside from the rarely-used female singer, and a briefly-shown TV reporter, there was not another woman in the game. But I still loved the music, and I loved the feel of playing the game.  I couldn’t just quit, I had an undefined enemy to defeat!  I had to prove, to something equally undefined, that I could love rock but not be the kind of rock that made a camera linger on a T-rated rendition of a stripper.  I had a system not just to defeat, but to change.

And I did!  Sort of!  I played through the rest of the game on hard.  I earned money and glory.  I bought the coolest guitars and the most expensive punk-rock outfits.  I unlocked The God of Rock, Slash, and the Grim Reaper from the character selector.  I beat every song with four or more stars.  In a conclusion that would have made Jack Black proud, I won a guitar battle with the devil for my soul to a rock rendition of The Devil Went Down to Georgia.  I became a “rock legend”, as the ending victory screen proclaimed me.  I played Dragonforce’s infamously difficult Through The Fire and the Flames atop an enormous hell-tower to hordes of cheering demons and devils.  I had done it.

But I had already done that a week ago.  Sure, it was on medium difficulty, but hard mode didn’t fundamentally change the experience.  Yet, somehow, it felt so much more invigorating the second time through.  I hadn’t just defeated the devil, the odds, and the hordes of other rock artists on my way to the top, I had defeated…something.  Sexism?  The patriarchy?  Strippers?  I wasn’t quite sure.  But I had done it.  I was a champion of rock, a legend, and I was a woman.  I got to play that solo on the top of that tower.  But I did not change the world.  I did not change the game.  I did not do anything combat the industry’s persistent, disturbing, and childish approach to representing half of the goddamn planet.  I didn’t do anything but change a few variables on my PC.  But that experience had enormous meaning to me nonetheless.  I may not have defeated even a sliver of the real patriarchy, but my defeat of an imagined one helped me learn from an otherwise mundane experience.

This story was not written into Guitar Hero III.  In fact, my narrative is mostly at odds with the game’s constructed one.  But this only made the experience all the more powerful.  I felt a beautiful parallel between my journey and Judy Nails’, with me in conflict with, yet in love with the game I was playing, and her in conflict with yet in love with rock music and its culture.  I embodied that contradiction, acted on its inconsistencies, and could feel the medium respond to my created story. I could assign meaning to the actions I performed and emotion to the songs that I played.  I could treat the game’s sexism as a problem with an imagined world that I needed to fix, instead of a prejudiced choice in a piece of static media, because Guitar Hero is not a piece of static media, it is a game.  I can take that game, which I adored unquestioningly when I was younger, and find meaning in 9it, because it isn’t the same game I played when I was 13; the game has changed because I have changed. Through this, I experienced a story I never could have in reality, because, yes, the game depicts a world created by developers that portrays women in a way that is simply wrong, but I am a part of that world.  I can change it.

Despite gaming’s relative youth as a medium, this isn’t some wholly unique experience.  In fact, we have a term form it.  It’s called emergent narrative, and it shows up in games like The Sims, Dwarf Fortress and Far Cry 2, where the authored narrative is overshadowed by stories the player creates using the systems of the games.  My experience with Guitar Hero doesn’t fit cleanly into this definition, but my role as agent in the story does allow me access to a bit of its advantages.  I was able to create a story, one that emerged entirely through my interaction with the game’s systems, that was much more personally compelling than the one the developers told.  In the authored story of Guitar Hero, the game told me that I was a rock legend.  In 529710-235_5_lmy story, I felt like a goddamn rock goddess, armed with a plastic guitar in one hand and a confused desire to smash the patriarchy in the other.  My real-world gender didn’t make that experience disempowering or emasculating; I had an evil to defeat and an injustice to fight, who cared if I was only a woman in the game world?  I’m going to remember that story for far longer than I will remember a couple of animated cutscenes.  I have learned from it, and it has changed my outlook on the real world.  Because, despite my story’s completely imagined nature, it made me feel like a hero; guitar and otherwise.

The Changing Game – A Feminist Exploration of the Transformative Potential of Gaming

Spoiler Content: Spoiler Free!
Warning: I wrote this for a class I’m taking, and it assumes the reader knows literally nothing about gaming, so some of the stuff might seem a bit…obvious…at times.

Video games have an issue with women. As an ardent defender of the medium, I have to acknowledge and face this fact every day. From the pixelated rape sequences in the Atari 2600′s Custer’s Revenge, to the ridiculously disproportionate character models in Tomb Raider, to the Grand Theft Auto “Hot Coffee” interactive sex mod, gaming has had a tenuous to outright juvenile relationship with gender and sexuality. Until the last console generation, beginning in 2004, there were hardly any good female characters in gaming. Well-written female protagonists in games are even rarer. If there is a medium that most represents the Standpoint Feminist critique of “the neglect of women’s perspective and experience,” this is it (Lorber 173). The gaming industry appears to be created by and for men. Why, then, do I think that video games could be one of the greatest tools for the feminist movement since the birth of the modern novel? What can the movement possibly gain from a medium where the “woman is the other” (Simone de Beauvoir, qtd. Tong 191)? The answer, I believe, lies in the very nature of games themselves, and the gaming industry is beginning to realize this. Unlike other mediums, games directly craft experiences, ones where the player inhabits the world the developer is creating for them. In his iconic essay on New Games Journalism, British author Kieron Gillen famously stated that, “The worth of gaming lies in the gamer, not the game,” emphasizing the centrality of player experience over authorial intent. Through the use of games as an experience instead of a piece of consumable media, I believe that feminist game developers and writers can foster a view of gaming as a way to explore alternate sexual and gender identities, encouraging a larger acceptance of diversity through a consistent and focused experience of the other.

Mass-Effect-Character-Creation

At the beginning of almost every role-playing game, a player is presented with a Character Creation Screen. In this screen, the player can change an exorbitant amount of variables about a character. The basics are sex, skin color, weight, personal back story, profession, etc., but the player can – and indeed, many do – spend hours tweaking variables from exact hair shade to hand size to nose width. During this time, the player creates a character that they feel personally attached to, one that they identify with, and one that they have constructed from the ground up. In short, “for every fan, there is a different [character]” (Munkittrick). For example, many entered the sci-fi role-playing-game Mass Effect as a straight, white, male Commander Shepard, while I entered as a straight white woman, and still others entered as a lesbian black woman. From there, the player begins a process similar to the kind of “self-naturalization” that feminist writer Judith Butler describes (Butler 33). They slowly accumulate experience that reinforces their role as their character, instead of themselves. As they have conversations, fight battles, and form relationships as their character, they generate a form of “repeated stylization of the body” that Butler defines gender as (Butler 33). This process of relearning one’s identity creates a fluidity of roles that is uncommon in the rest of our lives, similar to certain kinds of method acting. Role playing, unlike books and movies, does not encourage the player just to empathize with the character, but to actually be the character and make real-time decisions as the character would. An experienced role player is able to easily dive into a role, and transform themselves into an amalgamation of themselves and their character to interact with the game world as such. My Commander Shepard is a different person from my roommate’s Commander Shepard, as she makes decisions based on the part of her personality that I created and define, continually blurring the line between self and other.

The way the player sees the world, through this newly constructed role, results in a similar “mutual transformation” to that which Shannon Sullivan describes in her book on Standpoint Feminism (Sullivan 228). If a male player is playing as a woman, they are forced to work within their role and “ask questions from women’s point of view, ” subtly changing the experience (Lorber 173). In addition, because of the player’s role as the primary agent of the story, their taking action reinforces the idea of women as subjects, as actors, instead of objects to be acted upon. One great example of this trend is in the recent game Assassin’s Creed Liberation, where the player plays as a creole woman, named Aveline in 18th century Louisiana. Aveline’s default clothing is the armor of an assassin, which is relatively gender neutral, and allows her to go unnoticed by the general public but not by guards. However, the player can switch to the expensive dress of a lady, which will result in guards leaving her alone, giving her the ability to 20924ACL_SC_SP_18_SD_Persona_Aristocrat-610x345sneak into otherwise inaccessible places, but will cause men in the street to harass her, and even shove her around. The player is injected directly into this world, not as a swashbuckling action hero but as a hero who is also expected to be a woman following traditional gender roles. Through changing the seemingly mundane game mechanic of level traversal, the game “reframes questions and priorities to include some band other marginalized people” (Lorber 173). Aveline is under constant social pressure to conform, and, because of her gender, her outward appearance almost completely defines what other people think of her, instead of her identity as a human being. The game allows the player to explore this through its mechanics, through having to be Aveline and experience a similar kind of restriction and pressure that someone in her position would have felt.

This kind of exploration inevitably leads to a breaking down of concrete, binary approaches to gender and sexuality. By allowing a white, male player to experience the hardships of a biracial black woman, it “demonstrates the fluidity of gender and sexual boundaries,” and encourages a more diverse worldview (Lorber 267). If a player can become someone completely different and share in their experience with increasingly miniscule levels of difficulty, then, it would follow, people in the real world could do this as well. It “…adds needed fuel to the feminist fires of plurality, multiplicity, and difference, replacing binary thinking with a deeper, more complex understanding of race, gender, and sexuality” (Tong 191). Through this, players can begin to see parts of their world as gendered that they might not have otherwise seen. Perhaps the Chell-Between-a-portal-chell-27945457-830-623greatest example of this is the puzzle game Portal, released in 2007 by Valve Corporation to adoring critics and fans, featuring a now iconic female protagonist, Chell. The game is a First Person Shooter, by technicality. As a genre usually filled with military-fetishizing, jingoistic, rah-rah-masculine gunfests, FPSs are rarely marked by the subtle quietude that permeates many of Portal’s levels. While Portal technically falls into this category, since it is in the first person perspective and the player does shoot a gun, it also undermines it completely as “the gun’s masculine symbolism is subverted by the fact that it shoots portals rather than bullets” (McNeilly). The portal, and the game itself, is about solving problems, not killing enemies and exerting power. The game, through subtly, often overlooked cues, tries to tear down the very genre it is technically a part of, and it does so brilliantly. When the perspective of what is now the gaming other is introduced, such deconstructions become inevitable.

Despite the bleakness of the current gaming market, developers have begun to inject bits of feminist thought into their games, and thus allow their players to explore and accept these alternate sexual and gender identities simply by being them. While it is very easy to be pessimistic about the future of the medium, huge strides have been made. Anita Sarkeesian, a powerful advocate for feminism in the gaming sphere, won this year’s Game Developer Convention’s Ambassador Award, chosen from a list filled with Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 8.58.07 PMinfluential women. Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider, long hailed as the pinnacle of sexism in the medium, recently rebooted the character as a reasonably proportioned, well-written character, selling over six million copies. Gone Home, a game from a rookie developer which told a both chilling and heartwarming coming of age story about a teenage, lesbian girl, received universal critical acclaim, earning many game of the year awards. The industry is changing, and feminist voices are no longer absent from the medium. I believe this medium has an enormous potential, one that could change the perspectives of the millions who participate in it. The medium is in its adolescence, and there are certainly a great deal of growing pains, but through the constant injection of feminist voices, I believe it can continue to change, and, hopefully, join the ranks of feminism as a force for good.

Works Cited

Rosemarie Putnam Tong, Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, Fourth Edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 2008), ISBN 9780813348414.

Judith Lorber, Gender Inequality: Feminist Theory and Politics, Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). ISBN 9780199859085

McNeilly, Joe. “Portal is the most subversive game ever.” Games Radar. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://www.gamesradar.com/portal-is-the-most-subversive-game-ever/>.

Sullivan, Shannon, “The Need for Truth: Toward a Pragmatist-Feminist Standpoint Theory.” Feminist interpretations of John Dewey. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Gillen, Kieron. “Kieron Gillen’s Workblog » The New Games Journalism.” Kieron Gillen’s Workblog » The New Games Journalism. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/assorted-essays/the-new-games-journalism/>.

Munkittrick, Kyle. “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation.” io9. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://io9.com/5886178/why-mass-effect-is-the-most-important-science-fiction-universe-of-our-generation>.

Janiuk, Jessica. “Gaming is my safe space: Gender options are important for the transgender community | Polygon.”Polygon. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://www.polygon.com/2014/3/5/5462578/gaming-is-my-safe-space-gender-options-are-important-for-the>.

Franklin, Chris. “Assassin’s Creed and Emotionally Resonant Mechanics.” YouTube. YouTube, 30 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bsxQZ5JDec>.