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Pointing to the bottom line when under-represented audiences cry foul

So, as it happens, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of the often-great Zero Punctuation videogame vlog series turns out to a bit of a disappointment when it comes to facing the reality of the gender & sexism issues in AAA games & holding those who create them accountable.

The title of his Op-Ed at The Escapist, written in response to widespread critique of the lack of female protagonists in big-name game titles (among other things):

“If You Are Going to Hate on a Game Company, Do It For the Right Reasons”

Here’s a graf from that Op-Ed:

”[…] the fact is, the lack of diversity may well be a result of big companies not wanting to take risks. And I’m not saying female-driven games would definitely be a risk, but if white-dude-driven games are bringing in the cash, then it is the nature of the soulless corporation to not try to fix what isn’t broke. And why SHOULD they? It’s not something they can do casually, experimentally; the jobs of hundreds if not thousands may depend on a game’s success. Even more so with budgets being so ridiculously high these days. I don’t think you can blame a corporation for keeping things safe and bland out of the desire to maximize its chances of continued existence. More to the point, I don’t think you should be ‘blaming’ anyone.”

Thought experiment time. Okay Sherman, turn on the WABAC machine. Dateline: 1860.

If You Are Going to Hate on a Plantation Owner, Do It For the Right Reasons

The fact is, the lack of civil rights may well be a result of big plantations not wanting to take risks. And I’m not saying freeing slaves would definitely be a risk, but if black-slave-driven crops are bringing in the cash, then it is the nature of the soulless plantation to not try to fix what isn’t broke. And why SHOULD they? It’s not something they can do casually, experimentally; the jobs of hundreds if not thousands may depend on a plantation’s success. Even more so with the cost of labor being so ridiculously high these days. I don’t think you can blame a plantation for keeping things safe and black out of the desire to maximize its chances of continued existence. More to the point, I don’t think you should be ‘blaming’ anyone.

Hm. That’s got a different ring to it, eh? Maybe the appeal to “commercial realities” is, in fact, one of the weakest ethical & moral tactics around.

The genre problem undermining BioShock: Infinite

I beat BioShock: Infinite. I liked it more than disliked it. It’s got an ending that my nerd heart truly enjoys. And I think I’ve got a bit of a theory going on why the parts that don’t work failed in the way that they did.

Beating the game’s not really a crazily impressive achievement, except that I’m extremely flighty about videogames, and actually finishing them. This is especially true of typical AAA titles; little morsels like Braid or Fez have me slavering for more and more until I’ve gobbled everything up (Fez got me but good; it’s the first game I’ve taken to true 100% completion in ages). By comparison, I let the final acts of games like Mass Effect 3 or Red Dead Redemption linger on and on until I’m busy with something else. I’ve solved this problem, sort of: being cash-strapped, I’ve chosen to rent via Redbox instead. The pressure of a fee accruing day-by-day is a nice one to actually see things through to the end.

Anyway, it’s a big part of why I finished BioShock: Infinite despite having issues with it, whereas I’ve only mucked about in the original BioShock that I actually own and hold in higher esteem (though I know the plot well-enough via spoilers). The first BioShock toyed with the ideals of Ayn Rand and Objectivism as the Prime Movers that shaped the world of Rapture for the player to explore. It played some clever tricks, too, with the idea of the player’s (in)ability to choose, and that of their in-game persona, which won it just as much attention as its absolutely lovely “ruined underwater Art Deco fever-dream” aesthetic.

Similarly, BioShock: Infinite, only weeks old, has inspired lots & lots of writing already, and I don’t want to pile on too much where others have written posts covering the territory extremely well. If you poke through some of those critiques, though, it’s easy to see a few camps emerge: those who look at it as a game, those who look at its collection of ideas, those who pick apart the experience of working through the story, as well as many others harder to define. Each group has its own host of issues that stand out as “The Problem”, and I’ve got criticisms of the game that pop up in each category, so I agree with what a lot of those posts say—but I feel like I’ve puzzled out one thing about Infinite’s successes & failures I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Spoilers, yo.

Infinite swaps Ayn Rand & Objectivism out as references and installs Revivalism & American Exceptionalism in their place. Rewinding the clock from the 1950’s heyday of Rapture in the first BioShock, Infinite’s floating city of Columbia sets out to embody all the best & worst traits of America in the 1910’s. Factoring largely in the “worst” part of that scheme: the racism of the American South, resurgent after the Civil War. Emancipation Proclamation or no, the people of Columbia think they know better. (The white ones do, anyway.) It’s all moot, anyhow, as the philosophies supposedly in play are mostly a dodge, and quantum mechanics is the real matter of discussion. Which is just fine, except for those ideas your game raised, and then dropped…

Back to the first BioShock: Ayn Rand never got anywhere with Objectivism, really. Atlas Shrugged never came to pass, no matter what neo-conservatives & Tea-Party libertarians might think. There isn’t a generation of longsuffering John Galts out there, fettered and ground down by the ethics & morals of lesser men. Using those ideas as a backdrop in a game without giving them their due: a missed opportunity, but certainly passable.

This cannot be said for the issues of class, and especially race, that Infinite raises in its construction of Columbia but totally fails to resolve with any satisfaction. Racism was and is a real force that fucked over millions, and shows no sign of stopping. Using it as window-dressing only, without a solid connection to the plot or themes, is like setting a 1940’s BioShock game in some space-Nazi metropolis, complete with cosmic Auschwitz, only to have the game really be about String Theory. Why drag Holocaust tropes into the game at all? “Because it existed in history” isn’t much of an excuse.

What’s worse, extending the analogy makes the flawed logic more clear. Say in this imagined game, a faction of Jewish rebels plotting to overthrow the Nazis did seize power of their space prison camp—and they turn out to be a bloodthirsty mob, slaughtering every German they can find regardless of ideology. And now the hero of the game says in passing that you know what, maybe these Jews and Nazis deserve each other after all.

Woah. What?

But that’s embarrassingly close to what happens in Infinite. Usually the rules of internet debate would say that by invoking Nazis, I lose, except BioShock: Infinite pretty much went there for me. Just with a coalition of largely-Black freedom fighters instead of Jews.

So why make this choice? There’s evidence of the years of thought & planning that went into Columbia everywhere in this game, even though shooters tend to bore me (including pretty ones like Infinite). Why choose your dramatic tools so poorly? Well. I think the secret lies in the game’s genre, as a top-tier FPS title.

Over and over again, through the middle & end of the game, I felt myself bemoaning that so much work went into creating such a fascinating, intriguingly-flawed place as Columbia… which I can only shoot at. It’s almost literally true: I can walk around in Columbia, I can look at stuff, I can raid a hundred trash cans for hotdogs & cash… and I can shoot people. I can get a little better at shooting people, and sometimes shoot them with magic, so I can get to the next part of the city, with more people to shoot… etc., etc.

This game had to inherit the gameplay style of its forebears, for better or worse, and as a sci-fi lover (and avid Fringe fan) I think the conceits of parallel dimensions, time travel and so on to explain away the similarities are admirably done. But the setting of high-tension survival-horror and claustrophobia of Rapture was a good fit for the gameplay, where wide-open, sunny Columbia is not. In Columbia, you are the fly in the ointment, upsetting their elitist eden and bringing terror to the streets; if not for you, things might be peaceful. In Rapture, you fight with the desperation of a man with no other options: kill and progress, or die. Everyone there lost their minds years ago anyway; what’s the harm in killing a homicidal mutant before he or she kills you? Only, the game waits until the end to rub your nose in the “choice” to move forward and live, and it’s revealed you are being manipulated through key phrases that implant the suggestions of Rapture’s NPCs in your mind as total commands. In the city where Man was meant to live unrestrained, you have been enslaved from the start. It’s nothing earth-shattering about Rand’s philosophy, but as a historically-influenced veneer, it’s neat.

Not so for Infinite. The Vox Populi, those freedom fighters of Columbia, are an interesting idea when they first pop up, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. (They were supposedly inspired at least in part by the Occupy movement, which is a complete botched job as well.) Led by Daisy Fitzroy, a Black former housemaid, they have legitimate complaint with the excesses and racial oppression of Columbia’s ruling Founders. Yet, when the time of their revolution comes, they are shown to be mercilessly violent to all in their path, totally beyond reason. Fitzroy herself morphs into an off-the-rack villain in about two lines of dialogue, going so far as to execute unarmed enemies and threaten a Founder’s kid with the same over the course of a couple hours in-game. Suddenly, instead of the oppressive Columbian Police Authority, the people you’re killing on every street corner are the Vox rebels themselves. Waves and waves of the heavily-armed, minority underclass. It’s almost incomprehensible.

So what if it’s all because of a jump into a new, parallel universe in the game’s fiction: the game-makers are choosing to show this universe to us over other options, and it’s a shitty choice. Why? I think it’s because that of nagging issue of mine from before: in Columbia, all I can do is shoot.

The makers of Infinite wanted to include a nod to historical race issues in their game, and they want their players to interact with that game, so my only method to interact with Infinite’s race issues is to shoot at them.

Whatever convolutions of plot were needed to make it possible, they made them happen. It’s even more obvious than it might otherwise seem, since of all possible universes, these are the ones we see—they could have easily been different. In sticking so close the the style of play from their earlier games in Rapture, they painted themselves into a corner for Columbia. It’s possible that the team could have been just as tone-deaf working within the confines of another game genre, but I think it’s a hell of a lot less likely.