Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Alternate Narratives

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In looking for the movie equivalent of the supporting female roles in video games I described in my last missive, I came across Laurie Penny’s article I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, where she describes the trope of a role:

Not being sure what story you’re in anymore is a different experience depending on whether or not you were expecting to be the hero of that story. Low-status men, and especially women and girls, often don’t have that expectation. We expect to be forgettable supporting characters, or sometimes, if we’re lucky, attainable objects to be slung over the hero’s shoulder and carried off the end of the final page. The only way we get to be in stories is to be stories ourselves. If we want anything interesting at all to happen to us we have to be a story that happens to somebody else…

[…]

Part of the reason I’m writing this is that the MPDG trope isn’t properly explored, in any of the genres I read and watch and enjoy. She’s never a point-of-view character, and she isn’t understood from the inside. She’s one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority. Instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe.

These ‘quirky’ plot devices tend to go hand in hand and indeed play opposite to the lead in a repertoire of movies about manchildren: You know, the collected works of the likes of Seth Rogen, Zach Galifianakis, Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith, men who are themselves good examples of overgrown teenage boys. They’re fantasies made for a young male audience by a young male industry cadre. The Guardian posed suggestions as to why so many of those movies have gotten popular play: The successes of feminism questions traditional male roles, the difficulty of the economic climate prolongs adolescence, et cetera.

I think it’s simpler than that: They’re there because they always were there. We’ve just gotten slightly better at noticing them. Michael Cera and Will Ferrell aren’t doing anything but what Chris Farley and Adam Sandler did in the 90s, and they weren’t doing anything but what Tom Hanks and Bill Murray did in the 80s. Of course it goes further back than that, but one of the things from Penny’s article that struck me was this line:

Lady hobbits didn’t bring the ring to Mordor. They stayed at home in the shire.

Now, Lord of the Rings is a hotbed of ugly social assumptions at the best of times – as lampooned humorously in this McSweeney satire – and Tolkien was no feminist. After all, the number of active female roles in his books, which he clearly spared no detail, can be counted on one hand. When people tend to defend his credentials in that field, however, they tend to gravitate towards Eowyn (of the no living man” crisis, hur hur) and Galadriel as examples of powerful women. The thing is, they’re both mainly fleshed out in supporting texts like the Silmarillion, and in the main text tend to be defined by their love interests or weigh heavily on the madonna side of the madonna/whore dichotomy. Either way, they’re far from lead characters, serving as pedestals and plot points before they’re people. Peter Jackson indeed had to inject new content to make actual female characters for the movies, citing a general lack of material.

Eowyn, a character who masked herself as a man to get things done but eventually settled into a traditional female role, did get touted by, of all people, Tea Party Republican Christine O’Donnell, who then went on in true GOP fashion to argue for traditional female roles from an ironically nontraditional female role. Apparently she’s never heard of the term ‘tokenism,’ but then neither did Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin.

I’m somewhat loathe to criticize the book, however, because at times it feels like criticizing the bible: You know what point you want to make, but some nut somewhere will quote scripture at you until your ears bleed. Regardless, the reason that quote set me going was that it prompted something of a thought experiment of what the plot could be if the hobbit contingent was gender equal. Bear with me here: Pippin and Merry are now female, and in Manic Pixie Dream Girl style still largely comprise their roles to uplift Frodo from his often morose and weak-willed angst.

This time, however, they have actual personalities, so they quickly bore of dragging these sops around and instead ditch them to solve the world’s problem themselves. The boys, angered at being left behind, feel the need to prove themselves as the true captains of the expedition and follow them under the assumption that the girls will need their help eventually.

Suddenly, there’s no need for the Smeagol character, for Frodo assumes that role without difficulty. Furthermore, what we get is a Smeagol that is less physically ugly and more emotionally ugly, as befitting a character who learns halfway through the plot that they’re not the protagonist. Not only would it be far more compelling narrative – something the series sorely lacks – but we wouldn’t then have to rely on the “amazon,” as Tolkien described her, who ended up married off under another autocratic lineage, to be the standard-bearer for feminism in fantasy fiction.

In it I’m just swapping one fantasy enablement for another, but considering the paucity of diversity in what is clearly supposed to be escapism, what could it possibly hurt? It might even help.

Paint By Numbers

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A friend of mine was accepted into the beta for Wildstar, a Massively Multiplayer Online game made by NCSoft, a company known for polished but short-lived MMOs. They’re polished because the company has a lot of experience making games. They’re short-lived because the company has very little experience making compelling games. My friend was disappointed with the gameplay – she couldn’t lay specifics, however, as she was under a non-disclosure agreement – but remarked that the problem was that the developer and publisher listened too much to their fans.

Too much?

But there’s something in that statement; one that speaks to the design choices of a company that wishes to make a successful game and aspires to that of an art-form – famously criticized by the late Roger Ebert as an impossible feat due to the industry’s immaturity – if debased by acquiescing to the wishes of its lowest common denominator. Take the official trailer to the game:

The number of cliches and tropes in those three minutes is staggering, and to list them all would be tedious. In short, however, we have the alpha, a nondescript short-haired white male with a motorcycle and sunglasses, who gets the glory. We have the beta, a brute of a character who chomps cigars, schleps large hardware, and exists to deal with opponents the alpha doesn’t want to fight. Finally, we have what I can only describe as a walking sexual fetish – a stick figure with D cups, spilling out of her uniform, with all the anime-esque accoutrements to attract every furry in the western hemisphere – who existed to be saved (at 1:55) and to support the alpha (at 2:35).

This is an MMO, so the idea is that the prospective player will want to play as any character in the trailer. The problem is there’s only one protagonist in the trailer. The narrative is pulled out of the DreamWorks wheelhouse and says more about the target audience than it does about the game. There’s already been a controversy where-in the developers were pressured to give their female characters a breast reduction because critics noted that it was rather ridiculous. But they’re only doing what the fans want. Compare, for instance, the cinematic trailer for Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO made by Bioware and Electronic Arts:

We have the same white alpha male who takes the glory (this time in full Western motif), the same beta male who takes care of the opponents the alpha doesn’t want to fight, and the same token female who exists to be saved (at 3:00). Let’s try another trailer, this time of Rift, an MMO by Trion Worlds:

We have the same white alpha male who takes the glory, the same brute of a beta (isn’t it funny how all the betas aren’t human?), the same token female. This time she doesn’t get saved (she simply dies), but the archetypes are held aloft. In fact, in this game, one of the most popular complaints of the fans was that the female characters’ breasts were too small.

MMOs are somewhat more demographically balanced (in that an estimated 40% of the players are female) partly because they deign to depict women at all, and indeed that ratio drops precipitously in other video game genres such as first-person shooters and real-time strategy games. Most of the time in such games, women are simply nonexistent or are only damsels in distress. When they’re given actual narrative or player roles, as in Metroid: Other M, the developers seem to go out of their way to “feminize” them, which means to accentuate their weakness and vulnerability. Starcraft 2 is, likewise, somewhat famous for having its lead female character exist primarily for fan-service, in that the camera is notably following the male gaze whenever she is on screen.

In each scenario, the developers and publishers are only giving their assumed audience what they want, an in doing so feed into a self-serving prophecy: We only make games oriented towards teenage males because only teenage males like our games because we only make games oriented towards teenage males. This utter lack of introspection – largely because the developers are also mostly white, young and male – is the reason the games themselves quickly stagnate once the luster wears off and why most people outside the industry don’t give two thoughts as to the artistic quality of video games.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been acknowledgements in that direction, but when they are levied, they are levied to small independent (and sometimes one-man) productions and eschew the industry as a matter of course. Roger Ebert largely reviewed Hollywood films and found examples there-in that could reach his criteria. The Hollywood of gaming is in big-name publishers like Activision/Blizzard and Electronic Arts, and indeed, even in the most bleeding-edge games in development, there’s no there there.

The Best Offense

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Going around the ‘net in something of an afterlife is a video of the diffusion of an altercation on a 6 train between a Black woman and a man who can best be described as a creeper. The altercation is at least two years old at this point, but having been picked up by internet aggregators and the like, it’s become the subject of the usual “this is why the city is crazy” versus “this is why the city is awesome” bluster social media is practically made for.

It garnered the attention of the New York Times, which had decided for some strange reason to focus on the guy who whipped his phone out rather than the guy who broke up the fight. Indeed, the fact that it’s currently making the rounds on Buzzfeed and other aggregator sites splits the whole event into two stories. The first is Charles “Snackman” Sonder’s deft diffusion of the altercation. The second is Eitan Noy’s (and the internet’s) morbid voyeurism.

The first story is interesting in that it’s an unorthodox usage of public social protocol. The Black woman was being followed by a leerer nearly twice her age, and when he followed her onto the subway, she attacked him. She is not a large person by any means, and when he kicked her back, it was fairly clear that he had the advantage when it came to physical strength. Most people on the train stayed out of the fight, and for good reason: To enter into such a confrontational engagement is to antagonize one or both of the parties. “Mind your own business” is not just good advice for yourself, but also the primary means not to escalate a situation.

Charles Sonder did just that: He minded his own business. He’s also a former wrestler and all-around big galumph, so he decided to mind his own business directly between the two combatants. Effectively, he weaponized his own personal space, by making the creep have to go through him in order to further retaliate against the Black woman. His stature made the creep hesitate before continuing on, and his disposition forced the social situation to be “if you hit me or attempt to get by me, you are including me and then it becomes my business.” The Black woman, thus, gained a shield. This allowed another woman to advise the creep to leave the train, to which he could only impotently contend that the first woman hit him first. Seeing that he had no further recourse, he had to comply.

This is an inspired use of the social version of “negative space.” However, the Times story added another twist, which is how we get to the second story:

After that, the remaining combatant noticed Mr. Noy’s cellphone camera and asked if she could see it. “I didn’t know what she was going to do with it,” Mr. Noy said. “She could smash me on the head. I told her, ‘I didn’t really get anything.’ ” She persisted, he deflected, and then he got off at Grand Central Station.

[…]

About 10 days ago, Mr. Noy decided to post the video on his YouTube account, which he operates under his D.J. name, Eitan Noyze. For the first week, he said, it got about 400 hits. Then it started moving up on the Reddit Web site. As of Thursday evening, it was close to 900,000 hits.

That woman didn’t want to be taped, and Noy lied to her about his footage. While it’s legal for people to photograph and tape others so long as they’re in public, as there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” I dare say it is unethical to do so for an altercation in which that woman felt threatened. Her moment of distress became Noy’s internet fame, and while it certainly worked out for Sonder – whose actions are almost universally lauded – millions of views of that woman manhandling the creep may not necessarily be interpreted the same way.

Being an internet symbol of “people in New York are crazy” can’t have worked entirely in her favor, and the fact that the video is resurfacing means that her vulnerability in one front is traded for a vulnerability on another. Without the video, it’d be a New York moment – a teachable moment, perhaps, but one full of strangers that remain strangers. With the video, everything can be scrutinized and reassessed, and her time of distress becomes relived and reinterpreted by a broad swath of people who have seen her face and may not share the view that what she did was justified.

I could, of course, be over-stressing that aspect of the video, but what is clear is that such a result did not substantively influence Noy’s choice to publish that footage. Sonder willfully injected himself into an altercation, and so effectively consented to such celebrity. That woman was looking to get out of a situation, and ended up the subject of a bigger one. If Noy wanted to help, he could have offered to provide her the footage in case she wanted to make a police report. Instead, he decided that we can all leer.

Newspeak

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The initial overture of New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s political downfall is now complete, with the daily scandals of leaked emails and exposed lies and the like, and we are currently waiting on the actual legal nitty-gritty of nailing his ass to the wall. This will probably go the way of the OJ Simpson trial, if the rumors about his defense attorney are correct, and provide for a disappointing anti-climax to this whole affair, but we’re more or less used to that.

Why are we so inured to this? Why do we tolerate it so?

This is almost paint-by-numbers political theater, where nothing said is as it seems yet nobody needs translation for what’s occurring. Ostensibly, it’s about a week’s gridlock in Fort Lee drawn up as political payback against mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing the governor in his last election. Peel back that onion layer and, just as in the Soviet Union, it’s not the scandal but the cover-up that’s really rocking his political tenure. Peel back that onion layer and this petty bullshit isn’t of much concern to New Jersey residents at all and the reason it’s hitting him so hard is because nobody likes him in the first place.

Effectively, the scandal is an excuse to have a referendum on his political popularity, much akin to throwing the book at Al Capone for tax evasion. Democrats don’t like him because he’s stood in the way of every major Democratic initiative on infrastructure and social policy he could, in service to the national GOP and his chances at the presidency. Republicans don’t like him because he’s necessarily liberal enough to preside over a Democratic state and dared to shake hands with Obama when he was hurting for federal disaster aid. He rolls over for whatever’s most politically expedient, and in doing so has likely made a lot of enemies.

But what gets me about this is why we as an electorate bother to allow this sort of political nonsense occur. It’s clear to see the sheer contempt such politicians have for the actual act of governance through Christie’s State of the State speech:

The last week has certainly tested this Administration. Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better. Much better.

I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch – both good and bad.

Without a doubt we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.

But I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state. This Administration and this Legislature will not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in New Jersey to be delayed. I am the leader of this state and its people and I stand here today proud to be both. And always determined to do better.

Allow me to translate:

The last week was hard on me, your governor. I got caught corrupting the office I was elected for, playing voters for fools. You deserve better than me. Much better.

I am the governor and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch – both good and bad – but first let me throw my entire staff under the bus for following my orders in order to save my own political hide.

Please allow me to spearhead the federal and state investigation into my own malfeasance, and I promise you I will make sure to better cover my tracks when I inevitably “discover” that I did no wrong.

But I also want to assure the people of New Jersey today that what has occurred does not define us or our state: It defines me as a corrupt politician, latest in a surprisingly long line of corrupt New Jersey politicians. This administration will certainly not make the same mistake twice, at least as far as you know. Meanwhile, I still get to be governor because the gears of justice are slow indeed.

The art of the political non-apology is a storied one, with quite a long record of use, remarkable only for how patently obvious it is: Nobody is fooled by the words “mistakes were made,” yet we all accept them and fail to hold public figures accountable for using them. Allegedly intelligent people were in the room when he uttered those words, and if there was ever a time for somebody to shout out “you lie” during a public address, it was then. I believe the reason is because nobody’s paying attention at all, anymore, and the reason for that is because the actions of the national parties do more to decide the fate of a politician than his own record or the actions of voters.

Every statement like Christie’s that goes without actionable censure is further proof that the electorate’s general cynicism towards politics is well-founded: What apparatus is in place to put a politician’s feet to the fire over such bald-faced nonsense? What can an angry voter do in order to force responsibility on a politician for such a comment? Nothing. There is no means for one to do so, except in rare elections where the politician is placed against another hand-picked politician with equal(ly bad) credentials or in exceptionally rare recall referendums where we get to “throw the bum out” (and vote in another bum.)

Direct democracy has, since this nation’s inception, been as limited as could possibly be, for fear of the unwashed shouting down their intellectual superiors in the matters of public policy, simply because there are more of them. In Jefferson’s eyes, the landed yeoman was more trustworthy than the common laborer, and thus he created legislation that protected the former from the latter. In Jackson’s eyes, the common man deserved a say in what was obviously a rigged game, insofar as the common man looked like him. It is what got us the Electoral College and to a lesser extent the county system, and why the House is a citizen’s only direct national representation. It’s why every new electoral innovation is dominated by pols figuring out how to divvy up the electorate between the parties such that voting is all but unnecessary.

This not only emboldens politicians to do whatever they feel like with public policy, but it also explains why minor scandals become major scandals: They become the backdoor to accountability. If we can’t get him on his governance, we can get him on his sex life; his inability to hide details of his malfeasance on that front transmutes into his ability to hide his malfeasance in governance, which the media will frame under the guise of “trust,” and that’s all that matters. But all that means is that the power is shifted on those who are most able to exploit the Two Minute Hate that the public is able to bring to bear on a politician when the scandal breaks out, and to those who are most able to position themselves within the extant political structure to be the scandal-clad politician’s successor.

So in answer to this concept of Newspeak, who do they think they are fooling? Us, obviously, but long before the words themselves were uttered.

Dens of Iniquity

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I just had one of those “I’m getting old” moments while playing a video game a friend gave me for Christmas. The game was King of Fighters XIII, and true to form it was a fighting game. More accurately it was the modern iteration of a series of fighting games that have been around since I was a child, having picked up a Russian novel’s worth of characters and a telenovela’s worth of intertwined storylines in the meantime. The gameplay is pretty similar, though.

Where I got my “old” moment was that it put names to the moves and would, helpfully, suggest you do them while in the midst of a fight. “Do a Drive Cancel,” it would say. “I don’t know what that is,” I’d say, and pause the game to look through the prodigious glossary of moves, where-in absolutely no mention of a Drive Cancel was made. So, I looked online through various fora, where people would say, “oh, just do a QCB and a HCF and LP+HP and before that’s even done, do a HJC and DP+LP.” I looked through a wiki glossary for those terms before finally coming to the realization that what it’s really saying is, “you do a bowling motion and mash both punch buttons, thereby completing a special move, and after the first hit of that move has landed but before the last hit of that move has landed, you jump up, thereby cancelling the first move, do a Z-formation motion and smack ’em with your lightest attack, thereby completing another special move. This all takes place in about half a second, for which you do incrementally more damage than if you just mashed the control pad with a boxing glove. You can repeat this task with a certain combination of moves, for which you’d have to make a doctoral study of the game to actually souse out.” To this I replied, “no, I’m not doing that,” and remain unrepentantly ignorant of the benefits of drive cancels, super cancels, ex cancels and max cancels.

“Do a Desperation Move,” it would then suggest.

Now, my history with fighting games stems largely from having been a middle school latchkey child with spending money in the big city; money that was ultimately squandered on dollar pizza, candy, or the sorts of arcades bad 80s movies seem to have predicted and bad 90s movies seem to have been based on – where you begin to wonder if Karate Kid was actually produced in a studio or just composed of whole cloth straight out of your psyche. Be it hole-in-the-wall joints in Flushing, hole-in-the-wall joints in Chinatown (rest in peace, old-school Chinatown Fair) or incongruously large hole-in-the-wall joints in Midtown, the decor in an arcade was pretty much always the same: All the walls were black or as close to black as you can get, be it by paint or just collected soot, and so were the ceilings and floors. The place would smell like sweat and sound like a modern pachinko concerto as written by Schoenberg. It made every effort in the world to impart upon you that what you were doing was a guilty pleasure, like a massage parlor for the sexless. It was awesome.

So once or twice a week I’d delve into one of these holes in the wall and plunk in quarters and get beaten in Tekken or Street Fighter or King of Fighters by the 11 year old Fujianese kid who smelled of rotted chicken, until I ran out of money, which was the mark that I should be heading home. This isn’t to say I never learned. The moves are all muscle memory, which is why, say, moving the controller in a quarter-circle forward (aka QCF aka Fireball) is a ranged attack in almost all major fighting games and moving the controller in a Z-formation (aka DP or Dragon Punch) is an uppercut punch in almost all fighting games. The scheme is simple: Don’t break the habits of your best customers. So I learned the basics and, for that time, a few of the super moves. But, through successive iterations building upon those basics, the rift between the basics and the skill level where most folks are currently playing is mighty wide.

To address this rift, the industry itself has been working through various means to entice new players into the fold. Each new game now comes with extended tutorials and practice modes, something sorely missing from my days in the arcades and on friends’ consoles. However, even the tutorials leave a lot assumed: “Here’s how to jump, here’s the four basic attacks, here’s what all the things on your screen mean. Now do a super ex combo,” and I’m like, “you didn’t even mention those words in the instruction you just gave me.” They assume the player has been playing fighting games nonstop since those terms were introduced, and would thus know them by heart. It would be as if a new button were added to the operation of a car every five years since the invention of the car, to the point where the entire dashboard is an array of buttons, but driving instruction and drivers’ manuals only mention the stuff that was on the original cars.

Fighting games have left me behind. This wouldn’t be an issue if it were still 1994, however. After all, I was new to the games, then, and didn’t even have the benefit of a tutorial. Back then, though I didn’t know what I was doing half the time, I could still remain competitive. The difference between then and now, on the other hand, is that the number of folks competing in fighting games, when I first got into them, were limited. The total number of potential competitors in an arcade is everybody physically in that arcade. The total number of potential competitors with a console not hooked up to the internet is everybody in that room. That Fujianese kid or your second cousin can only be but so much better than you, and neither you nor they have the will to fight nonstop all day. In my first foray into online play for King of Fighters XIII, by contrast, I apparently hesitated for a tenth of a second, because I was stun-locked by some ridiculous combo for three quarters of my health, and then the screen went black and a supermove of some renown finished me off. I wasn’t entirely sure I even had to be present for the fight to go much differently.

Effectively, what I saw was somebody who had clearly been practicing nonstop since long before this particular iteration came out, to the point where he could effortlessly do what it took me sixteen tries in practice mode to do the first half of. This man clearly was not limited by petty things like “life,” and I, out of practice as I was, dared to step into his domain. Prior to the internet, his domain may have been one basement in San Jose, but now it was the very game itself, and I was but grist for his mill. I have never felt so old.

Cisgendered

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I think a good benchmark as to how enlightened the video gaming industry is would be to take a sample of the line-up of new titles and apply Rule 63 to them. Rule 63, for those not enlightened to internet parlance, is:

For every given male character, there is a female version of that character. For every given female character, there is a male version of that character.

It is part of a meme called the Rules of the Internet, and means that, for any given work, somewhere, somebody has made fan fiction of that work where they have gender-swapped all the characters. It’s an interesting thought experiment, especially if you change nothing else besides the genders.

For instance, in the 1981 classic game Donkey Kong, Mario saves the Princess. Applying Rule 63 would mean the Princess saves Mario. In fact, it’s one of the first games in which this has actually been applied, where a programmer named Mike Mika hacked the game so that his three year old daughter could play as a female protagonist.

I have at times been concerned as to the tropes and biases in the games industry when it comes to gender roles, and there has for a long while now been something of a furor over how women, for instance, are depicted in video games and what is or is not palatable to the general gaming public. People like John Walker and Anita Sarkeesian have made the topic their causa belli and have caught flak for it from various sides, as have companies like Bioware, known for depicting strong women or canonically homosexual characters.

The dominant market demographic has a dark side when it comes to issues such as this. Bioware senior writer Jennifer Hepler quit her job because of the threats and hostility directed towards her and her family in part because of her sympathetic portrayal of homosexual characters in Dragon Age: Origins and her role as a woman in the industry. Gamers also targeted journalist Carolyn Petit because she dared call a game she liked – in this case, GTA V – misogynist. It regularly bubbles up to the fore like in a Capcom reality show in 2012 where male gamers openly defended sexual harassment by saying it’s “part of their culture;” that it really is their club, or a Blizzard convention in 2011 where performers felt no qualms in spewing homophobic epithets to a cheering crowd.

So, I say! Like the Bechdel test, let’s say we haven’t solved this problem until you could change the genders of the characters in a potentially controversial game and have everything be just as palatable as before. I’ll call it, unimaginatively, the Rule 63 test.

For this thought experiment, I’ll start with, well, Donkey Kong. Having Princess Pauline, as Mike Mika named her, save Mario is well enough, but we can go further. Mario is a pot-bellied, mustachio’d plumber canonically from Brooklyn, and Princess Peach is, well, a Princess. So I propose we have Maria: A rotund, middle-aged woman plumber with wispy facial hair and a Brooklyn accent. Basically, if you cast Roseanne Barr for the live action TV show:

She would save the dashing Prince Pear. In Super Mario Bros, she’d be joined by her sister Louise (played by Geraldine Barr), a gangly, awkward woman to serve as foil.

You can already see that some people would have problems with this. Some boys would have a hard time identifying with the protagonist, and would be positively repulsed by her assumed courtship with the prince upon saving him. What is kosher in the original becomes farce. Men can be any shape and size, but women must be attractive! A woman will fall for the protagonist regardless of her own feelings but men have standards! Or so we thought.

Let’s do another!

This year has seen the reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, with one of the few famed female protagonists in video gaming: Lara Croft. This new Tomb Raider was a coming-of-age plot that tried to explain her motivations for all the other games, largely by torturing her. A lot.

Now she’s a he. He’s Larry Croft, teenage amateur spelunker who gets into very uncomfortable, tense moments with more than a little sexual implication under Russian mercenaries. He’s basically halfway between Tintin and John McClane, except he cries a lot and spends much of the ten hours of the game whimpering to himself. He has three mother figures, all of whom try to save him from his own incompetence and instead end up dying to protect him. By the end of the game, he’s a shell-shocked, traumatized wreck, which is exactly the sort of bold characterization that sells games to our dominant market nowadays.

It’ll be a hit.

Okay, one more!

I’m gonna pick on Bioware for this one, because they set up some of the more interesting storylines. If you play Dragon Age: Origins as a city elf, you meet up with violence, racism and classist oppression in the first twenty minutes of the game, along with some good ole’ rape thrown in to really motivate the player.

Well, supposing you start as a female city elf. If you’re a male city elf, it’s your bride-to-be who’s sexually harassed by the lord’s son and kidnapped to be raped, and it’s your job to save her and exact righteous vengeance. If you’re a female city elf, it’s you who are sexually harassed and kidnapped to be raped, and you have to defend yourself.

So, let’s just reverse the gender: The lord’s son now fancies you, a young male city elf on his marriage day, for a bit of rough and tumble, leading first with a good ten minutes of harassment, groping and unfavorable power dynamics. How long do you suppose the average dudebro would last before shutting the game down and firing off angry emails to the publisher, assuming he didn’t just send his fist through the computer monitor?

Oh man, I should go into games design. I’d make a killing.

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