Tina K. Russell

March 31, 2009

Boys and Their Toys

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 4:14 pm

Heather Chaplin spoke at the Game Developers Conference, and boy, did game developers get a well-deserved earful.

To: Heather Chaplin, From: Game Devs, Re: Please Return Our Testes » PixelVixen707
Chaplin used her slot to tell the industry, as reasonably as she could, to grow up. See, she covers the business for the mainstream outlets – she co-write Smartbomb, the single best book to buy anyone who doesn’t understand your “hobby,” and she reports at NPR among other venues. She says this puts her in the role of a “translator,” trying to tell the mainstream why gaming even matters. This also means explaining a lot of big-name games that feature zombies, and aliens, and girls in metal bikinis wielding axes. And while she’s heard the excuses – it’s “a very new medium” – she’s way past accepting them.

Like Wendy slapping around the lost boys, Chaplin patiently but firmly laid down the line. “It is you guys as game designers who are mired deeply in ‘guy culture,’” Chaplin said. The problem isn’t the medium: “You are a bunch of stunted adolescents.” Games avoid any of the things that separate men from boys: responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery. And “when you’re talking about culture-makers, this is a problem.”

I ate it up. For sure, I don’t agree with her whole rant. I won’t scrutinize her comparisons to rock and roll or film, or wave around any of the games that try to meet the standards she set. And I won’t point out that her frustration probably comes from eight years of telling her dinner party buddies why she’s wasting her time on something that “literate” people still call a toy. I will point out that, as a woman, I may be drowning in toys for boys, but I wouldn’t necessarily blame it on the zombies and the aliens. Games are by and large a power fantasy, and we only cast them with monsters because our co-workers and family members are too hard to model.

But games should also be more than a power fantasy. It’s eerie how rarely the qualities she ticked off find a place in games. This is important not just to the girls, but to the boys who don’t dream of being a marine or a quarterback. In music, boys can listen to boys who aren’t macho. If balls-out, cock-out rock ain’t your thing, you can listen to Belle & Sebastian. There’s a spectrum of masculinity and femininity, and endless ways for both boys and girls to respond to it. But in games, aggression is the default, and relationships are usually as clumsy as a third-grade dance.

Thank you! Have I mentioned how many times I get excited about a game that’s supposed to let me do anything, but “anything” ends up being limited to kill one kind of monster or another kind? Can games make a point, or entertain their players, without using a sledgehammer? Will they ever make use of the enticing texture of subtlety?

(To be fair, Ms. Pixel Vixen points out counterexamples that Chaplin ought to have mentioned; I’ll volunteer EarthBound, the favorite game of a close friend of mine. Oh, and don’t forget Animal Crossing, the videogame equivalent of a bonsai tree on your windowsill, except it needs hours of your life instead of soil and water. Still, though! Even bad attempts at diversity and subtlety would be better than the millionty rehashes of space marine vs. alien hordes we have right now.)

By the way, I was happy to play the Mirror’s Edge demo. Even if Edge didn’t like it, I might still buy it. (I thought it was fun, so I hope I’ll end up disagreeing with Edge about the full game, too.) I like the idea of a game about running away.

(Oh! How could I have forgotten Katamari Damacy? …And Jet Grind Radio? Okay, there are plenty of examples. Still, game developers! Follow your hearts! Don’t just ape yesterday’s success! We’re already bored with it!)

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