Girl in the Machine
Friday, September 28, 2007
In Defense of Video Games

We've all heard it before--video games have been under attack by politicians and concerned parents for years now. We're constantly barraged with the notion that video games are corrupting our minds, the root of destruction for today's youth. They cite violent, mindless games and present pictures of blank-faced children absorbed in the latest media target. Apparently, video games are bringing about the destruction of the world.

On the surface, it's not too hard to see why video games are deemed to be such a threat to society: some of the most popular games do contain plenty of (now more realistic than ever) violence. However, I don't believe these games are turning the kiddies into mush-minded zombies.

Gather 'round, folks: it's story time.

When I was but a wee Plasma, I was introduced to video games via the Nintendo. Watching my brother play through Super Mario Bros. was one of my favorite activities until I was old enough to play myself. When the Super Nintendo came out, I ate up the Donkey Kong Country games; not so much for stomping baddies (although it was plenty fun in its own right), but for the DK coins. In each level, a DK coin was hidden somewhere in the environment. Out of the sibs, I was the best at finding them, and whenever I played, I would focus on every detail of the level to dig them up.

Later, I discovered the wonders of the RPG. Even at a young age, I was enraptured with their stories, from Final Fantasy IV (then FFII) to Super Mario RPG. I often wrote about other adventures the characters would endure--which eventually evolved into my own original stories.

The Survival Horror games I started playing in middle school introduced me to the more violent side of video games. Before the carding days we have now, I played Mature-rated games at the age of thirteen--and yet, I wasn't suddenly fueled with the bloodlust of a thousand demons like so many politicians believe.

These games weren't mindless fun to me. They constantly engaged my critical thinking and creativity, and I do believe they cultivated my mind in a positive way. Granted, I do not represent the masses, but the point of my story is that video games are not something to be demonized. Just like other forms of entertainment, they can be used for good.

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 Posted by PlasmaRit
 2:30 PM + Link to this post

Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Gaming, Identity, and Sexuality

You may have heard the news already, but take a look at this:

"Shanda (Nasdaq: SNDA) subsidiary Aurora Technology has frozen game accounts of male players who chose to play female in-game characters in its in-house developed MMORPG King of the World, reports 17173. Aurora stipulates that only female gamers can play female characters in the game, and it requires gamers who chose female characters to prove their biological sex with a webcam, according to the report."
Article from Pacific Epoch

Shanda Interactive Entertainment Limited’s homepage does not include any news of the ban. The company is one of the leading online entertainment providers in China, offering everything from MMOs to casual online games.

I’m not about to get involved in a discussion leagues outside of my area of expertise (particularly China’s stance on topics like transsexuality and gender bending), but I do feel comfortable enough to say that I find this simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. My fascination comes from my inability to relate to the individuals responsible for this ban. Their fear and ignorance leave me dumbfounded. I am horrified because I see this as a stepping stone to something worse—the notion that this ban could be a reflection of policies that may affect real life. Perhaps I’ve read too many dystopian novels.

I'd like to focus on one particular facet of this ban, as Shanda has not publicly explained their decision for implementing the plan. Before continuing, I’d like to include a quotation from Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction by Teresa De Lauretis:

“For since the very first time we put a check mark on the little square next to the F on the form, we have officially entered the sex-gender system, the social relations of gender, and have become en-gendered as women; that is to say, not only do other people consider us females, but from that moment on we have been representing ourselves as women. Now, I ask, isn’t that the same as saying that the F next to the little box, which we marked in filling our the form, has stuck to us like a wet silk dress? Or that while we thought that we were marking the F on the form, in fact the F was marking itself on us?” (pp 12)

Lauretis was referring to a concept known as interpellation, or the process through which social representations of identity are accepted and internalized by an individual. This example extends beyond the male-female binary it initially suggests and instead suggests that all conceivable genders are limited when equating sex with gender. Shanda’s ban serves as an example of one of those imposing sources attempting to restrict our definition of self.

Personally, I feel that this kind of imposed thought-filtering fetishizes the so-called “perversion.” By focusing on eliminating these desires from ourselves, we actually think about them a great deal, and they don’t simply go away. After all, we’ve invested so much time and energy into the act of renunciation. In terms of the ban, this means that if a male player wants to play as a female, he may initially go along with the rules to play as a male. As he continues to deny those desires, however, he acknowledges their presence. Eventually, he may wish so strongly to play as a female character that he has a female friend create the character for him to play.

I find it absurd that the individuals responsible for this ban would attempt to limit the ways in which others could construct their identities. We don’t know gender through our bodies, but rather the stories we tell about them, even in video games. Because of the society in which we live, our sex burdens us with faulty expectations and limit our self-expression. The self is not such a simple concept, however, and it is impossible to choose a single element that contributes most to our socially constructed gender identities.

The problem with this issue is that we do not know official reason that the Shanda company implemented this policy, and this is why my views on the matter may seem somewhat narrow. To broaden them, it’s important that we consider the “why” of the matter. Was it because of intolerance on the part of the company, or were players being intolerant of one another? Could it be to limit problems with sexual harassment, or does this policy amount to harassment in and of itself? Please feel free to share your thoughts or concerns in our comments section.

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 Posted by Calabar
 6:00 AM + Link to this post

Monday, September 24, 2007
Sexy Bunnygirls Want to Play With You

One of the staples in any good RPG is the element of exploration. A fantasy-world opens up to the player, along with a host of varied and exciting locales. It's not uncommon for the towns and villages of these worlds to be themed, and it's likely for the player to find herself exploring villages populated by ninjas, wizards, magical creatures -- or even entirely by women.

Final Fantasy XII picks up on this theme with the all-female Viera of Eruyt Village. The Viera -- as displayed upfront by FFXII's main black mage, Fran -- are a race of bunny people that, because they are bunny people, run around in stiletto heels, thongs, and assorted lingerie.

Okay, so maybe I'm not being fair. The Viera are a deeply spiritual people that have a close bond with nature and are particularly skilled in archery. Their bunny ears allow them to hear over great distances and listen to the voices of spirits. Because of this ability, they can summon monsters from --

I'm sorry, I just can't get past this. The only all-female society in Ivalice just happens to resemble a clutch of Playboy Playmates. This wouldn't creep me out as much if, say, Fran was the only one suffering from an awkward gait because of the leather G-string three miles up her ass. However, every single other lapine-eared lady, from leader Jute's silky teddy to the NPC extras' thigh-highs, has apparently decided that bedwear is completely fitting for patrolling their jungle home. I'm all for being able to choose whatever the hell you want to wear, but there isn't a single Viera who doesn't look like she belongs in Hugh Hefner's mansion. Add to that the consistently cookie-cutter faces and it almost makes my blood run cold.

Final Fantasy XII is a fantastic game, so it's a shame that the overall experience -- and so much potential for a group of strong female characters -- suffers because of such blatant sexism. And it isn't the Vieras' fault; they also appear in Final Fantasy Tactics: Advance, Tactics: A2, and FFXII: Revenant Wings with much more varied character designs, from the sexy to the sensible.

It's not the sexy itself that gets to me. I won't mince words: this entire society, set apart from the many others of Ivalice as being made up entirely of women, has been rendered to a collection of sex objects simply by their character design. Conversely, Final Fantasy IV's matriarchal kingdom, Toroia, avoided this beautifully. For example, while the sprites of the Toroia guards could have been replaced by the scantily-clad dancers, they're in fact decked out in armor. Because they're . . . guards, and, male or female . . . you get the idea.

Unfortunately, it's not unusual for female characters to be subjected to this kind of hypersexualization and objectification, and even less so for women in power to have their status mocked by such. The sad truth is that it's just as common an RPG staple as our aforementioned town themes. If only there were something other than the obligatory Hot Sexy Chicks Who Would Love To Sex You Up that leaves female gamers left out in the cold.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 12:05 AM + Link to this post

Friday, September 21, 2007
A Primal Love for Jen Tate

Introducing: one of the greatest female video game characters you've never heard of.

Primal is a game that flew under the radar when it was released for the Playstation 2 in 2002. It tells the story of a couple caught in the middle of an epic struggle for control over the multiple worlds: that of Arella, Lady of Order, and Abaddon, Lord of Chaos. Unsatisfied with the balance of the two powers, Abaddon seeks complete domination; part of this plan involves a kidnapping.

Here is when Jen and her boyfriend Lewis enter the scene. On a typical night, Jen and Lewis leave a club after Lewis's rock band finishes playing; they're accosted by a strange man. The night ends with one of them missing and the other half dead--but whom? This is where my love for the games flourishes.

The intruder transforms into a horrific beast, kidnaps Lewis, and leaves Jen in a pool of blood on the asphalt. With the help of the gargoyle Scree, Jen must overcome the attack, restore the balance of Order and Chaos, and save Lewis from the bloodstained hands of Abaddon. Primal turns the stereotypes of the Brave Hero and the Damsel in Distress on their heads--without it being a gimmick. Nothing in the game suggests a hint of "Look! It's the woman who has to save the man--isn't that hilarious?". Jen's personality is refreshingly realistic: she cares for her boyfriend, freaks out when she meets Scree for the first time, and uses humor to deal with unfamiliar situations.

Jen's main powers are her ability to transform into four of the different species that live in the Nexus: the Ferai, the Undine, the Wraith, and the Djinn. There are plenty of female characters in video games have a similar ability, such as Shania from Shadow Hearts 3. Unfortunately, most of these characters fall victim to hypersexualized transformations that leave many female gamers cold. But Jen's?

Are not pretty. In fact, they're visceral, ferocious, and ugly--a very rare sight for a female character. Her arms are bulging with muscle, and her face matches the feral nature of the species she emulates. She grunts and shreiks with a wild fury when she attacks, rather than gasping and moaning. Girl looks like she can tear you to pieces. And it's awesome.

So folks, go to your nearest video game store, dig through the used games, and try out this fantastic gem. The glitches may be a little frustrating, but Jen's refreshing character is well worth it.

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 Posted by PlasmaRit
 12:53 AM + Link to this post

Wednesday, September 19, 2007
I Love Girls with Big Swords. . . Waitaminute

Or, Advertisers make me crazy!

Here I was trying to enjoy some music, when all of the sudden—bam! I got hit by a massive advertisement for the recently released PS3 game Heavenly Sword.

I visited the game’s official website to learn more about it, hoping that my initial impressions about the game were incorrect—when I saw the sexy, long-haired woman with virtually no cloths and a gigantic sword spinning in circles ala Magical Girl style, I assumed the worst. I was immediately treated to an animated video that details the origins of the protagonist, Nariko, The video explains:

“So many were sacrificed, and even that fateful moment claimed one more treasured life. Our long awaited savior—the returning heavenly warrior—was born a worthless girl, a violation of the prophecy, the death of our hopes. How would this thing save us?”

As it turns out, her father chooses to keep his daughter alive (the video makes it clear that he considered infanticide), but she lives alone and receives the blame for all of her clan’s misfortunes. As her father hones her into a powerful warrior over the years, her clan seems to accept that she may be their only hope. After her father’s death, she goes on a journey for revenge, hoping not only to avenge him but also to redeem herself in the eyes of her people.

That’s some pretty heavy stuff. I’d consider the story much more substantial than the usual “pretty girl runs around with a big sword and kills stuff” games, and it seems to have plenty of RPG story elements mixed in with exciting action parts. I do have one major gripe, though.

The game’s catch phrase is, “Heavenly Sword. Vengeance has never been so beautiful.”

Once I’m done thrashing in place and screaming inside, I take a second look at the line. It’s a perfect example of the expectations marketers have for their consumers—it dismisses the majority of the female gaming population. A certain game with similar themes of revenge and courage would never have been advertised like that.

The ad simply doesn’t make sense to me. From my understanding of the game, beauty is the last thing on Nariko’s mind. I can understand making her attractive—even as a gay guy, I would vastly prefer playing a striking character like Nariko rather than a scabby, scarred, misshapen character. It’s part of the fantasy of gaming; however, I don’t like that Nariko is being objectified and that sexuality is being used to sell the game when it is completely irrelevant. Prettiness is unrelated to a blood hunt.

I haven’t played Heavenly Sword yet (and won’t for a long time—I don’t even have a TV right now, let alone a PS3! Make your donations to Girl in the Machine today!), so I can’t get into too much detail about the game—but I do think it has potential to bring out another strong female lead.

Any readers have this one yet? Can you tell us more?

(Images from Pandora Radio and the media page at the Heavenly Sword official website.)

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 Posted by Calabar
 4:45 PM + Link to this post

Monday, September 17, 2007
Loss, Death, and Hope: The Mothers of Metal Gear Solid 2

(Major plot spoilers follow!)

Hideo Kojima's popular Metal Gear series is known for its stealth-oriented gameplay and notoriously complex plots. 2001's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty met a mixed reception by fans because of its extremely convoluted (and nearly incomprehensible) storyline. Among a huge cast of characters are three central female figures that, in addition to playing major roles in the advancement of the plot, share different aspects of the literary mother archetype.

Olga Gurlukovich, Helena "Fortune" Dolph Jackson, and Rosemary are three of the four female characters featured in MGS2 (the fourth, Emma Emmerich, is underage). In some form or fashion, each of them is tied to the game's main event, the Big Shell incident, by the secret group known as The Patriots. Their roles as mothers drive each of their motivations, ultimately shaping their individual fates.

Olga is an extremely impressive female character. Tough, adept in combat, and essential to protagonist Raiden's survival, she cuts a formidable figure. In an interesting and refreshingly realistic move, her character model is designed with practical apparel and, awesomely, unshaven armpits (it's rare for even male video game characters to have body hair -- I guess Raiden shaves his legs -- so I found this to be an interesting choice). We learn early on that Olga is pregnant during the Tanker incident, and near the end of Big Shell she reveals that she's been coerced into serving The Patriots because her child was kidnapped right after being born.

Olga's motherhood is characteristic of loss. A group of men use her motherhood to control her, and her life and that of her child fundamentally hinge on Raiden's. She finds herself in an impossible situation, stopping at nothing to protect the child she's never even seen, even though it means aiding The Patriots. Interestingly, the story never references a husband nor a boyfriend, leaving Olga's mission solely in her own hands. In the end, though she does save her child (presumably), she's murdered by Solidus Snake. While her self-sacrifice is extremely admirable, she died under the thumb of The Patriots, and was left with little to no possibility for saving herself.

Helena Dolph Jackson, or "Fortune" as she's code-named, leads the Dead Cell unit in the Big Shell takeover. True to her namesake, she possesses the seemingly supernatural ability to repel bullets and deactivate bombs with her very presence. Wielding an enormous rail gun, Fortune is also quite intimidating. She's a rare sight in video games as a woman of color, and even more so as one who awesomely avoids racial stereotypes.

Fortune's aspect of motherhood -- and perhaps her very character as well -- revolves around death. Her father, Scott Dolph, was killed by Revolver Ocelot in the Tanker incident, and, not long after, her mother committed suicide and her husband passed away in federal prison. To top everything off, a pregnant Fortune suffered a miscarriage, and, wrought with grief, she took her husband's place as the leader of Dead Cell. Her perceived invincibility isolates her, leaving her to believe that she will forever outlive her loved ones. Though she's one of MGS2's villains, she partially redeems herself at the end of the game by turning against Solidus (who has, surprise surprise, been manipulating her all this time). Unfortunately, Solidus fatally wounds her, and, as with Olga, her redemption is too little, too late. While the other members of Dead Cell met their ends as well, it's particularly tragic that she dies at Solidus's mercy.

Rosemary is Raiden's girlfriend and mission correspondent during Big Shell. Unlike Olga and Fortune, she's a less shining example of a female character. Chatty, hypersensitive, and just plain irritating, she nags her way through the entire game until the big reveal at the end: she's a spy hired by The Patriots to monitor Raiden's progress during the incident.

Despite this, Rose's motherhood emblemizes hope. When Raiden discovers that Rose is not what she seems, she confesses that she's pregnant. Her pregnancy -- the bond that ties her in a very intimate, immediate way to Raiden -- helps her do what neither Fortune nor Olga could: escape the clutches of her controllers. She's a small but very important sign that The Patriots are not unbeatable, and she shows up outside of the codec interface for the first time to meet Raiden in the ending cutscene. While I find Rose's character to be less than stellar, I am glad that she's not a stereotypical temptress sent to lead Raiden astray. Her service under The Patriots is very intricate and subtle, having had both her appearance and personality reshaped to meet Raiden's specific preferences so as to remain undetected.

Metal Gear Solid 2's three central women are united by their aspects of motherhood. While all are tragic characters, none of them is static or predictable, and they each present an interesting take on what it means to be a mother. Considering the myriad philosophical layers that MGS2 tackles, I have to wonder if there's any ulterior significance to this theme, or even to the fact that the strong Olga and Fortune die while the passive Rose survives.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 12:01 AM + Link to this post

Friday, September 14, 2007
Swing and a Miss, EA

Oh, dear; as if Disney wasn't bad enough, here comes EA games with their opinion of the female gamer demographic. David Gardner was trying so hard, wasn't he? But he's still not quite getting it. Why don't we take a look:

He said if EA cracked the problem [of catering to female gamers] the firm "could add a billion dollars to its sales." He said the industry had to learn from the film business. "The movie industry doesn't just make films for boys.

Very true, Gardner, and a point I agree with. A good portion of the video game industry seems focused on creating games for boys (and, in some situations, believing they are instead). Would you like to elaborate?

"Star wars was the biggest film of all time until Titanic came along; Titanic became the biggest because women went to see it and women went to see it multiple times.

Ok, we're starting to tread on some dangerous ground here--

"Just boys saw Star Wars multiple times."

Aaand there it is. I seriously doubt that there were no hardcore female Star Wars fans back in the 70s. I must have watched those movies a thousand times when I was a kid, and I'm sure I'm not alone. Does anyone else out there see the trainwreck coming?

Mr Gardner said one of the biggest problems was that the content aimed at women gamers was not appealing. "They don't want 'pink games'. They are not trying to play girly games where Paris Hilton and Britney Spears go shopping and put make-up on. "Those kind of things have not been that successful."

Once again, another point I can agree with. As we've stressed here at Girl in the Machine, the way to attract the female demographic takes more than stuffing glitter into a cartridge. Good job, Gardner.

But he said games such as The Sims and websites such as proved there was a market for women gamers. "Most of the Sims players are girls - 70% are women under 25," he said. "The Sims is really a game about relationships - and that's what girls want - they want relationships, they want to be able to chat."

I--guh? The fact that Gardner feels confident enough in his opinion to make such a blanket statement about female gamers is giving me a headache trying to comprehend it. Sure, I love the Sims. I love watching my Sims get abducted by aliens and get lei'd by the Grim Reaper--establishing relationships with fellow Sims who jabber in Simlish at me isn't exactly at the top of my list of fun things to do in that game. But you know us women; we just looove talking and carrying on. Gardner totally gets us, doesn't he?

He added: "One of the things that is going to make games for girls happen is creative teams. It's going to be new people and experiments. Four of our 11 studios around the world are run by women. That's an important start. "Investing in new and upcoming talent is critical."

And then he rounds it all off with another point I agree with. Reading this article in its entirety just gives me a headache; how can there possibly be so many contradictions in one place? It simply boggles my mind.

If you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to have a little lie-down now.

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 Posted by PlasmaRit
 12:08 AM + Link to this post

Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Video Games as Literature

An elaboration on our mission at Girl in the Machine

Oftentimes when I mention to strangers that I play video games, the glint in their eyes or the sardonic curve of their smile seems to suggest that I look dumber than I did a few moments before. I think, though, that this means they have never considered the appeal of gaming or its similarities to conventional literature.

Video games are discredited as a result of their most appealing features, such as the graphics. Admittedly, games present you with visuals for the characters and setting, whereas we rely on reading comprehension and contextual clues to form these mental images when reading novels or short stories. Games have a decided advantage against traditional texts—their interactivity. Like the reader of a novel, a video game player experiences the story, except in a more direct fashion.

Because of their interactive nature, video game characters serve as an extension of the player’s identity. Through this new “prosthetic identity,” the player participates with a directly active role in the story.

Consider the game Indigo Prophecy. In it, Lucas Kane awakens to find he has committed a murder, but he has no memory of it. The player acts as both Lucas and the police officers Carla and Tyler. As Lucas, the player wants to escape the crime scene, return to a normal life, and figure out how and why he was committed the murder. As the police officers, the player has a mystery to solve, including looking for clues, gathering information, and interrogating witnesses. The player can purposely foil either side and directly impact the outcome of the story, which has three decidedly different endings.

Other games possess strong thematic connections to canonized literary works. For example:
• Rule of Rose recalls similar themes to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, including the loss of innocence and the tragic relationships within abusive groups.
• The Kingdom Hearts series recalls Homer’s The Odyssey or Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with its quests to find/prove oneself and face destiny, not to mention the coming of age elements.
• Silent Hill 3, with its absurd and ironic world, recalls the works of Kurt Vonnegut. The themes of rape and its effects on women are echoed in texts like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.

The same strategies used when analyzing “high literature” can also be applied to gaming. Why, then, do many treat it as a less legitimate form of media? Part of it may be stem from fear, while part of it may stem from stubbornness.

Even books are, by definition, a form of technology we use to learn.

Considering video games as a genuine for of literature, they become an exciting vehicle for exploring the notions of feminism. As with conventional texts, an awareness of the presentation of men and women in gaming, including their sex and gender, race, socioeconomic class, and other limitless factors can help us enhance our understanding of the world and its machinations.

So get out there, play some games, and learn something.


 Posted by Calabar
 5:51 AM + Link to this post

Monday, September 10, 2007
Checking In

Hello, everyone! This is BomberGirl writing in to let you know that, due to extraneous circumstances, there will be no article from me today. In the meanwhile, please peruse (as always) the wonderful links on our sidebar, and Calabar and PlasmaRit will be here on their respective days with new content.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next week!

 Posted by BomberGirl
 3:56 PM + Link to this post

Friday, September 7, 2007
First Friday Drinking Game

Welcome to another installment of the fabulous First Friday Drinking Game. This month, we'll be raising our glasses to the fine games in the Metroid franchise in celebration of Metroid Prime: Corruption's release last week. While it is well known that I am a fanatic of the series, there are still plenty of things I feel the need to have a drink to. So, let's get on with the rules!

1 drink every time a monster is just below/above normal cannon fire
1 drink every time Ridley comes back from the dead
2 drinks if Ridley's a robot
1 drink for every infuriating speed block puzzle (Note: 1 drink may improve concentration, but be wary of multiple puzzles--blurry vision does not help with timing)
2 drinks for every wall jump puzzle (I'm looking at you, Super Metroid)
1 drink for every daring timed escape out of anything that's about to explode, be it ship or planet
1 drink for every arm cannon switch that takes a little too long
2 drinks whenever hunter Gandrayda refers to Samus as "Sammie" (okay, so it is pretty funny, but still drink-worthy)

And finally:
Finish your drink at the end of a Metroid game if Samus's outfit under her suit has random peep windows/weird cutouts have no reason to exist on something she wears under her suit during missions

Warning: Excessive drinking during gameplay may result in a reduction of cannon accuracy and a dramatic increase in metroid head-munching. Play with caution!

Think I forgot something? Suggest a rule in the comments section!

What drinking games do YOU want to play every month? If there is any genre or specific game you want featured in FFDG, drop me a line at PlasmaRit at gmail dot com.

Plasma out.

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 Posted by PlasmaRit
 4:30 PM + Link to this post

Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Sidetracked: Personal Outrage

Or, Oh no you didn’t, Natsuki Takaya!

Just to be fair, there’re pretty significant spoilers from Fruits Basket vol. 17 in this article. You’ve been warned. Yeah, yeah, it came out in mid-August, so this isn’t exactly hot stuff… but I just got to it! Real life has had a strangle hold on me and my free time.

Alright, this isn’t about video games. But ever since I read the newest volume of Fruits Basket this week, my head has been reeling from the bomb Ms. Takaya dropped on me. I’m so devastated that I can’t even think about gaming.

Get this: After sixteen volumes—that’s about four years—the male antagonist of the series is revealed to be a woman. I can already hear you asking, “So what’s the big deal?” Well, let’s look at Akito’s past…

Akito: Quintessential badass and master of I-don’t-give-a-damn. To be completely honest, I don’t like hir at all. Ze’s the cruel, merciless, and unfeeling leader of the Sohma clan. As a literal god-child, ze was born to die—you see, in the story of the Zodiac, the Buddha gathered all the animals to him and promised that they would be together forever. While initially a sort of gift, the children possessed by the Zodiac animals quickly came to view it as a curse. Because ze is possessed by the Buddha-figure from the story, Akito wields tremendous power over the members of the Sohma family.

The majority of the characters in Fruits Basket are exceedingly kind and compassionate, highlighting Akito’s madness. To mention just a few of hir cruel acts, Akito has pushed one character out of a window, slammed a twelve year old into a wall, hospitalized the same young girl for two weeks, blinded a family member in one eye, assaulted and terrorized the protagonist, and even attempted to strangle hir own mother.

Through all this, the 5’4”, 98 lb weakling continues to assert hir right to brutalize hir family. With reckless impunity, ze victimizes the Sohmas without an ounce of regret.

Why, then, when we discover that he is a she, does Akito unexpectedly become such a sympathetic character? What makes hir actions suddenly forgivable? Out of nowhere, Akito is portrayed as a woman with emotional needs, as someone with whom we as readers should identify.

My concern is this: in the span of a single graphic novel, Akito’s femaleness has softened hir character. Ze hasn’t been completely watered down, but I fear for the worst. I would hate to see such a cold-blooded villain weaken simply because ze is female. For example, in the past, Akito held "court" and forced the Zodiac to attend simply because ze could. Ze enjoyed wielding power for power's sake, and ze could not pass up the opportunity to remind the Zodiac that ze was dying because of them. Now that Akito's sex has been revealed, Mrs. Takaya has changed the nature of Akito's actions. Instead, they have been linked with Akito's desire for companionship, fear of abandonment, and need to be seen. A man can experience all of these things; however, because of the way they have been presented in the manga, I feel that a clear line has been drawn between them and femaleness by linking them through Akito.

I find myself hoping that the mangaka has an amazing plot twist on its way to make up for this cheap trick. I expected better of Mrs. Takaya. With her wide cast of female characters in Fruits Basket, I'm surprised to see Akito succumb to needy and oversensitive stereotypes

To her credit, the construction of such a violent female misogynist presents a wide array of opportunities for drama within the story. Akito unabashedly hates women, and the ensuing tragedies may yet redeem the series. I still anticipate a vicious showdown between Akito and Tohru, the series’ protagonist. I just hope it won’t be a cat fight.

I know that Fruits Basket has completed its run in Japan. It had a long haul, bringing in twenty-three volumes before it was completed. It’s still going to be a while before the last five volumes are published in America—and I’m willing to wait until that far-off day to figure out what’s going to happen. Until then, here’s to hoping that Akito still has that fiery passion in hir.

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 Posted by Calabar
 5:59 AM + Link to this post

Monday, September 3, 2007
On Female Leads

So I was fortunate enough to indulge in a few new game purchases recently, and on my way home I underwent the tried-and-true ritual of ripping open each object of my affection to get at the meaty instruction booklets within. The hardbound art book packaged with Persona 3 was particularly delectable. When I flipped to the sketches of the game's silent protagonist, however, I paused. Art Director Shigenori Soejima writes:
"Initially, [the protagonist] looked more honest, like an ordinary, handsome young man. But, I worked to achieve greater ambiguity in his expression. This was the final result."
Of course, this got me thinking about leads in general.

Video game leads. We, as gamers, use them to insert ourselves into the game. We do not passively watch (as with television or movies) but actively engage in this medium, and the protagonist is the connecting link. Oftentimes, game leads are made generic, more ambiguous by developers so that, presumably, more people can identify with them. And thus, cue a slew of white male protagonists.

Female leads are difficult to come by (and women of color even more so). Usually, I'm so grateful to see a female lead that I'm initially blind to her negatives. Take Princess Peach, for example. Or Lara Croft. Even Final Fantasy X-2's crew slipped under my radar at first. (Wait. Sorry, I'm totally lying about that one.)

When it comes to female leads, as few and far between (relatively speaking) as they are, we've seen all kinds. It's no question that those the likes of Princess Peach (gimmicky damsel-turned-hero) or Lara Croft (eye candy extraordinaire) weren't crafted to meet a generic ideal for the sake of women gamers. Female leads have a sort of "specialized" air around them that separates them from their male fellows, exoticizing them if you will, and it breeds interesting questions. How does this divide perpetuate the concept of women as the "other," alien to the generic male/humanity figure? And furthermore, how much should we value the state of being generic, if even for the purpose of equality?

In my mind, three issues are key in the formation of a proper female lead:

1. The character avoids female stereotypes.
This is a given, and afflicting female leads with typically female stereotypes is what I most often see in video games. In my above-linked post on femininity, I mused over the socially-conditioned attitudes towards women and how we are all taught to subconsciously scorn the female sex -- even those of us who identify as such. These stereotypes (such as the bimbo blond) are used to demean and humiliate women, and they make the idea of a woman in power -- acting as the avatar of the almighty player -- laughable.

A female lead who avoids these stereotypes not only eliminates the woman/other figure (by transforming her from a caricature into an actual human being), she also serves as a better avatar with which a player of any sexual persuasion can identify.

2. The character's motivation is not dependent on a man.
A long-standing myth about women is that we are frail, delicate little creatures who require the guidance and authority of the stronger sex to function. This myth manifests in many fictive forms, including video games, as the character whose actions completely center around a man. I target my hatred of this trend on the obligatory "love interest" role, as it's become so common for a female supporting character to exist solely for the sake of the dashing male lead. This carries over to female protagonists as well, and it often takes form as their motivations. And then we have Yuna from FFX-2, for example, who couldn't do anything for herself if, say, her own life depended on it.

When we see a female lead that quite realistically does something for the million other reasons that don't involve men, it's unusual, a pleasant surprise. It's a welcome change from a patriarchal society where even men are conditioned to find their motivation in other men (in a typically competitive nature).

3. Being a woman is not integral to the character's role.
This rule is a lot less cut-and-dried than the others, so bear with me. The conundrum here is that, time and time again, female leads find themselves singled out because of their sex. In this case, a woman's body or some other recognizable state of femaleness is used to justify her role as the game's lead. Thus, in order for a woman to be the protagonist, her sex HAS to have some kind of purpose.

For example, as much as I love and adore Heather Mason, it's very easy to see why she's the only female lead in the Silent Hill series (the upcoming Origins and 5 included). As explained by Claudia Wolf near the beginning of the game, Heather's body is needed for the rebirth of God. While James or Henry or Harry could have just as easily been women (and Harry was even rewritten as Rose for the Silent Hill movie), Heather's biological femaleness is necessary for her existence, providing us with yet another example of the female/other figure.

While I feel that an emphasis on femaleness casts an isolating pall over female leads, I do realize that it's important not to embrace the generic state entirely. Celebrating both womanhood and femininity is both essential and empowering. And video games that do underscore their female characters' sex can be eye-opening, as the brilliant Rule of Rose has shown. It's all a matter of context, and no hard-and-fast rule can possibly apply to something so complicated.

Above all, whatever the answer -- and, unfortunately, I don't have one -- an increase in female leads (of at least partially the above caliber) can only be a good thing. Finding a place among the generic protagonists in gaming is one goal, but I feel that joining the ranks of already-established women leads is even better.

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 Posted by BomberGirl
 12:07 AM + Link to this post

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