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aug 2012


Welcome To The Border House. Come Play.

Games. Diversity.


ctrl+alt+defeat the border house

Issue 8 (Aug 2012) Diversity ctrl+alt+publish Dilyan Damyanov ctrl+alt+edit Anna Kowalkowski ctrl+alt+text Mattie Brice, Denis

Farr, Scott Juster, Brendan Keogh, Nick LaLone, Amanda Lange, Richard Naik, Alex Raymond, Bogi Takacs, The Border House ctrl+alt+design Dilyan Damyanov ctrl+alt+photo Marek Bernat, Anna Fox, David Goehring, Piotr Lewandowski, Ivan Salas, Ingrid Taylar, DIAC Images, Paolo P, podoboq, Vox Efx

art & photography index

1 Harmony Day by DIAC Images on Flickr 4-5 In Everyday Use by CarbonNYC on Flickr 8-9 scream by obyvatel on sxc 12 axis n allies europe by skalas2 on Flickr 13 axis n allies world in war by skalas2 on Flickr 16 JackieW- Meetup Model -54 by Vox Efx on Flickr 21 Black_hat by Vox Efx on Flickr 22 Moses has horns! by HarshLight on Flickr 27 doll torture by podoboq on Flickr 28 doll torture by podoboq on Flickr 29 doll torture by podoboq on Flickr 37 Hammer Woman by ywel on sxc 39 Gay Liberation Sculpture by George Segal by ingridtaylar on Flickr 57 Alice Liddell 03by ~emptyfilmroll on deviantART contact @ctrlaltdefeatme support us If you like ctrl+alt+defeat, there are several ways to help make it. You can buy stuff from our Amazon store at, donate via the appropriate button on our homepage, or contribute to future issues by submitting to the editor’s email above. Thank you! You make this so worthwhile! disclaimer

Every effort has been made to ensure that all artwork and texts used in this issue are either licenced under a Creative Commons license or permission has been obtained from the copyright holder. We’re sorry for any mistakes we might have made. Unless it is somebody else’s artwork or text, all content in this issue is licenced under a Creative CommonsAttribution-Non-commercial license.



4 Amanda Lange recites “Ban Me, Bitch” and other tales of community harassment 9 Richard Naik speaks softly but carries a moderately sized banhammer 12 Brendan Keogh is a powerful ally 17 Scott Juster talks race in Rapture 23 Bogi Takács swings from rabbinical dialog combat to the chainsaw of divine wisdom to examine Jewish themes and characters in video games 26 Mattie Brice wants to be a queer explorer in an intimate frontier 30 Alexandra Raymond delivers an overview of diversity and cosplay 33 Nick LaLone studies women’s voices of command and bodies in peril 38 Denis Farr’s X-Com experiences reveal a privilege unknown 41 Some favourites by Border House’s writers rho, Alex, Cuppycake, Quinnae and Gunthera 1


Bogi TakĂĄcs (prezzey) is a psycholinguist and a science/ technology journalist. E has a fondness for Spivak pronouns and psychic space marines. E is Hungarian and Jewish, which do not necessarily mix well. You can follow em on @ tzniuswarrior or www.prezzey. net.

Denis Farr enjoys discussing the topics surrounding games (video and non), intersectionality, sex, narrative, and identity. They have formed a lot of his opinions and writing over the last four years. If you ever wish to discuss such with him, feel free to follow @aeazel on Twitter. Nick LaLone is a sociologist in transition between a Master’s programme and a PhD programme. He lectures about Video Games, Sports, and Leisure part time while taking care of two cats -- Bob and Joe as they try to murder that little red dot on the floor. With the help of his wife, Kristen, Nick sometimes manages to write some things down. Nick can be found on twitter @nick_ lalone.



Ban Me, Bitch

and Other Tales of Community Harassment

Amanda Lange


sat down at the desk the first day on my new job. The first thing I received was a direct message from a player. “HELLO” it said. Someone was here to greet the new mod! How sweet of them to be so welcoming! My fingers poised over the keyboard, ready to type back. “FUCK U” came the next response, before I could immediately reply. It wouldn’t be the last. I’m the community manager for a small-scale web RPG. My job consists, in part, of handling player complaints and disputes, cleaning up forums, and banning and disciplining problem players. I have a personal inbox on the game: a direct-contact line which is marked with both my username and a visible “admin” flag. I have the ability to block players that are sending me


abusive messages, but I don’t usually, since I’m the forum cop and dealing with them is part of my job. I should also mention that I am a woman, and I have a female avatar. The players certainly notice. Some of them are very polite, deferential, and respectful. They know I have a banhammer, as well as other ways of punishing them (locking them from forums, banning them from chat, or issuing temporary bans for example). It would be wrong for me to indicate that all players are rude. Just some of them. For example, some people want to be banned. It happens maybe once or twice a week. I don’t understand why, exactly. Maybe they feel that they don’t have the willpower not to log into the game without being banned. Or, perhaps they see it as a way of quitting the game, by going out in a blaze



ctrl+alt+defeat his mother’s eye, though he looked the part of a nerd; he might have gotten picked on a bit at the middle school he was currently attending. Through information he provided me, I could see who he really was and where he lived. In return, he could see my female avatar, and my mod flag, both of which together meant I was a dirty cunt.

line of outright sexual harassment (‘Show me your tits, bitch!’) or saying things about how they don’t think women belong in online gaming at all (‘Put down the controlleryou should be in the kitchen, making me a sandwich’).” So, clearly, this isn’t a problem confined just to young players. Harassment can come from players of any age.

It might seem ridiculous that I, a grown woman, would

For another peek at what women deal with on-line, the blog Fat, Ugly, or Slutty posts up examples of on-line harassment as submitted by readers. This harassment can happen anywhere: from Xbox Live to Magic: the Gathering. Some of the content is really astonishing to read, especially when viewed all at once.

girl u pretty fine of internet glory. A long-standing mod policy on the game was not to ban players who just request bans. So, there are days when I sit down to a torrent of abuse in my inbox: three, five, ten messages all calling me horrible names, with the hope of getting banned. “Ban me, you bitch.” “Ban me you dirty cunt.” “You dirty cunt” sent me three separate harassing messages within the span of a few minutes. I banned him, per his insulting request. But it turns out that he had married his Facebook to his game account, so I could see who he was behind the curtain. Instead of a tough adult, I saw a chubbylooking kid, who couldn’t be more than thirteen, smiling through thick glasses. He was probably the apple of


get upset that a thirteen-yearold called me names on the internet. It’s not as if he knows me. But the harassment of children can wear on the mind of any adult. And, it’s not always just kids harassing people, either. Jenny Haniver, who runs the anti-harassment blog Not in the Kitchen Anymore posts up voice recordings of harassment she receives from players, and an astonishing number seem old enough to know better. “Out of all of the recordings I’ve put on my website, I would hazard a guess that probably 95% or more of them feature gamers that I would identify as 20+ years of age…” she comments. “And typically, the 20+ year-olds tend to throw out remarks more along the

As Haniver mentions, harassment directed against women usually falls into two categories, with some overlap: “women don’t belong playing games” abuse, and “unwanted sexual advances” abuse. I’m always fascinated by the sexual advances I receive, because players have nothing but my avatar to go on. Certainly, it’s an attractive enough avatar, but it’s a bit of a jump to go from that to: “girl u pretty fine” or “hey babe be my gf” or “maybe we could be friends w/ benefits” (all real messages in my inbox this week). Just for contrast, there’s also a “fuck u hore suck my cock.” I wonder if that come-on ever got anyone’s cock sucked. One day, I sadly missed an opportunity to step in and

ctrl+alt+defeat stop this kind of advance. I had logged in, and opened the chat window – the game supports a sort of interactive web-chat, which is open to all chatenabled players. The nature of this chat window is that a player can watch without participating, so, I am hidden from players until I speak up. On that particular day, I had the chat running while I was multi-tasking, and wasn’t paying close attention to my game window. When I popped back into the window, I saw, in my back scroll, two male players heavily harassing a female player. They were talking in explicit sexual detail about what they would like to do to her. After a few sentences like this, she left. I came back to the window too late to stop the initial conversation. I sat there staring for a while, feeling horrible and guilty. But then, I unhid myself, and I just asked. “What makes you guys say things like that to a girl?” There was silence. Someone, a bystander to the original abuse, commented on the silence. Finally another bystander suggested, “Lack of contact with real women, I’d imagine.” I can’t say whether or not that’s true. But even this small possible explanation was phrased as a joke, one player’s way of feeling better than the others and showing off for the mod. It was a way of deflecting

not shocking. It’s boring.” “okay i just wanna make people hate me and upset them and ruin their life” I admit, I wasn’t sure how to reply to that one. It seemed an honest self-assessment in its way. However, I suspect the desire for negative attention is something much deeper.

fuck u hore the cruelty that happens all the time, for which there is truly little rational reason. When players are cruel on chat, my first resort is usually to ban them from chatting. A player logged in one day and “shouted” nothing but racist epithets into the chat box. I took away his chat privileges without comment. He sent me a private message asking why. “Stop shouting boring uncreative racist things,” I said. He obviously saw the loophole I left there. “I try to shout out more creative exciting racial slurs.....” “I mean to imply that racism in general is uncreative. It’s

Whatever their reasons, player harassment, particularly male to female, is an ongoing problem in internet communities. Grace, of Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, gives this advice to players who are harassed, which I would definitely agree with: “Report, report, report! Help [community managers] do their job!” She suggests that in the future better automated tools could be developed to make the work easier for players and managers alike. Also, game companies should be open to suggestions from community managers on these solutions, which is an idea I can definitely get behind. As it is now, usually, there is a real person on the other side, and we do read your reports and complaints. And I at least, am right there with you, weathering the harassment storm.

Photo by David Goehring





Speak Softly

But Carry a Moderately Sized Banhammer

Richard Naik

subjects of countless internet memes, putting a stain on both the games they came from (even if the games themselves don’t deserve it) and gamers as a whole.


nline gaming has a bit of a… reputation. OK, that’s probably an understatement. It has a bad reputation, and in many ways it’s totally deserved. There are countless videos of players being racist, sexist, and just all around assholes, with other players often reveling in the awfulness. Tales of rampantly abusive voice/ text chats in games are the

I’ve been playing online games for roughly ten years now, and I would be lying if I said I was never a part of the problem. While I like to think I wasn’t as bad as some of the more horrendous things one can find on YouTube, I often laughed along with the instigators, and it isn’t something I’m proud of. After my discovery of Team Fortress 2, and thus playerowned servers rather than giant player pools like Xbox Live, I started being more appreciative of groups or


ctrl+alt+defeat clans of players that made a point of not tolerating jerks. The admins were attentive, and the experience was much less daunting, both for me and other players. Unfortunately, the servers went away as much of the group moved on to other games, and the old clan leaders just didn’t see the point in keeping the TF2 servers around anymore. Me being the TF2 enthusiast that I am, I

Jenna suddenly spoke up, giving him his shit right back and taking it in stride. offered to set up a new server and try to bring the group back to life. Thus far it’s been wonderful. Players I hadn’t seen for years came back, and the server was suddenly alive again. However, being in charge as opposed to being just a clan member has proven to be a very different experience than what I expected. My friends eagerly asked me how often I would bring out the “banhammer”, and my initial answer was very short -- a lot. If people cause trouble they’re gone, period. It was a simple policy and thus would be easy to follow, or so I thought. The server has three rules, all carried over from the old


clan that predated me: No racism. Ever. No abusing other players. No mic/chat spam. The fact that they were willing to display that on the server’s front page is one of the things I appreciated about my old clanmates. I try my best to keep that spirit and make it an inviting place, a haven that stands out amongst other public servers. I give inexperienced players pointers rather than chastising them, and things like racial slurs get an instant warning and a ban if they persist. However, there is obviously a lot of leeway in how one can interpret the rules, especially the one about abuse. What is abuse? Where is the line drawn? The most interesting case came early on with one of my assistant admins, a woman. We’ll call her Jenna, since that’s about as far from her actual name as I can imagine. A player came in and started making all kinds of weird sexual/rape comments towards her, and for a minute or so she went quiet on the voice chat. I warned him once but he kept going. Other players were chiming in with “oh it’s not that bad” and “lighten up” after I called him out. I had my finger on the ban button, but then Jenna suddenly spoke up, giving him his shit right back and taking it in stride. The banter got as bad as anything from YouTube, and Jenna just kept rolling with it.

ctrl+alt+defeat This is obviously the kind of thing I hoped to prevent. Some moron gets on the server, starts trouble, and gets egged on by the other players. But is it abuse when the person being “abused” doesn’t think so? I asked her about it after the game, and her response was blunt: “No way, I love that shit. It’s hilarious.” So what’s an admin to do? The day after that incident is when it hit me. Creating a welcoming place for all players isn’t about being restrictive, it’s about being responsive. It’s about the players knowing they can come to me with a problem and that I (or another admin) will do something about it. It’s about knowing that most of the players wearing the clan tag share the same attitude. Over time I’ve developed a clearer sense of when to intervene and when to let things go. It’s just unreasonable for me to be offended on behalf of someone else, so my rule is now thus; if a player is clearly not taking part in the joke (if they react negatively or go silent) or if they’re asking me to do something, I step in. If they’re just taking things in stride and having fun with it, I let it go unless it’s something really blatant. Also, I’ve found that once an admin gets on a troublemaker about something, they stop, no matter how much of a badass they try to make themselves out to be. Since I started following

I asked her about it after the game. “I love that. It’s hilarious.” this rule for myself things have gone very smoothly. The server regulars know what isn’t tolerated, and nobody gets up in arms when someone gets banned. In fact, having a good group of regulars is essential, as there has to be some self-policing by players for any sort of community to thrive. They know me and the other admins, I know them, and they aren’t afraid to ask about things or tell us if something is wrong. I’ve changed a lot over the time since I’ve been gaming online, and often my current attitudes towards harassment put me at odds with a lot of players. Being now in a position of “authority” (insomuch as a TF2 server owner has

authority) has taught me that sometimes fostering a community means letting some things go by that I would otherwise call out, depending on the circumstances. Ban-happy admins can ruin games, but indifferent ones can do just as much damage by allowing abuse to drive away players. Finding a balance between vigilance and a “live and let live” attitude is crucial and often difficult. However, discovering that balance and watching people I know have fun with the game I love in the space I created is an experience like no other.

Photo by Marek Bernat



Powerful Allies Brendan Keogh


n late May, a new trailer for the upcoming Hitman: Absolution, the latest game in the long-running Hitman series, was released online in the run-up to this year’s E3. If you follow the gaming press even casually, you have probably heard about this trailer. It catapulted a discontent that has been brewing just under the surface of popular awareness for years now onto the most mainstream of gaming press outlets. In the trailer, protagonist Agent 47 violently confronts a group of hypersexualised nun assassins. The nun assassins, the trailer suggests, have been sent to kill 47, but once the fight starts, they put up little resistance and become little more than passive targets for gratuitous acts of violence. When the trailer is not showing close-ups of crotches or breasts, it is showing glorified, slow-motion violence against these women. It is particularly telling that the trailer’s introductory scenes shows


47 getting dressed as the nun assassins, for no apparent reason, undress. They slip out of their habits to fight in revealing, skin-tight leather, fishnet stockings, and impossibly high heels. While 47 is dressing for a fight, the nun assassins are undressing to be gawked at while they are attacked. The trailer is, to put it lightly, problematic. It depicts a gross conflation of sexualisation and violence against women. As a culture whose mainstream industry still largely markets solely to adolescent boy power fantasies, videogames have had some fairly low lows, and I long ago learned to just roll my eyes and move on. It’s not that I would accept the grossly sexist depictions that were going on, but I would acknowledge they were grossly sexist, maybe complain a little bit on Twitter, and move on. But the Absolution trailer was different. This was a new low. It was just so blatantly of-

fensive, so blatantly not in any way okay. I still remember exactly how it felt watching that trailer. Incredulity gave way to guilt. “I did this,” I remember thinking as a nun’s nose got broken in slow-motion. “Me. I allowed this to happen.” And it was true. Every time I had rolled my eyes and ignored another problematic representation of women in videogames, I had sent a message to the marketers of these games that they could get away with doing this. This was my fault. So I pounded out an angry blog post. I provocatively (perhaps even antagonistically) called it “Quit Pretending There Isn’t A Videogame Rape Culture”. I spelled out how trailers like the Absolution one and our begrudging tolerance of them helps strengthen a rape culture within videogame culture that normalizes violence against women and, further, which conflates that violence with sexuality and sexualisation.


I didn’t intend the piece as a manifesto. I wasn’t even really trying to start a dialog. I was simply angry, at myself almost as much as at the trailer, and when I’m angry I write. I wrote it on my personal blog where I never expect much traffic. In the days between the trailer coming out and me pressing the ‘publish’ button on my own article, various other writers of various genders outlined far more succinctly (and diplomatically) just what was wrong with the trailer, and there was very much a dialogue happening before my own post. I wasn’t trying to engage people; I just needed a release. Yet, the post went viral. It exploded and I lost the next three days doing nothing but responding to tweets, moderating comments, commenting on blog posts responding to my own, getting caught up in arguments on Facebook comment threads, and replying to long emails. Three whole days. I had to email editors and tell

them the articles I had due would be delayed. The work I had planned for my thesis for those three days simply didn’t get done. Just as any other internet storm would have begun to die down, another hugely problematic trailer was released, this time for the new Tomb Raider game. This one suggested that this ‘younger’ Lara Croft would face sexual assault in the game, and a developer went on to say in an interview with Kotaku that they wanted players to feel like they would want to ‘protect’ Lara. Not be Lara. Protect Lara. Like some kind of white knight fantasy come true. Since then, the discussion of gaming’s consistently poor portrayal of women has not died down but grown louder and louder. Things that would have passes uncommented on by the mainstream gaming press six months ago are being called out for what they are.

Maybe, just maybe, things are actually changing. But it’s worth stressing that this didn’t happen overnight thanks to one trailer. Many, many strong writers have been tackling sexism (and broader inequality) in videogame culture since there has been a videogame culture. Which, I admit, is partially why I had never really spoken up before the Absolution trailer. There are so many strong non-cis, nonwhite, non-male videogame writers, what right do I have as the most privileged class of videogame player, to speak for them? What I learned most from the experience of actually speaking up, then, was how utterly naive this justification for staying silent was. I learned that while I certainly shouldn’t be trying to speak for other people who can speak for themselves, that as a privileged ally, I had something I could contribute to the cause. Something I wasn’t contributing by


ctrl+alt+defeat staying quiet. I was naive to think I could just write a post like that and not spend three days dealing with the fallout. But, perhaps paradoxically, I realized just how much easier it was for me to write that piece and to have attention drawn to it simply because I am a straight cis white male. As is to be expected, I received many negative comments and responses to my piece. Many of them were the typical, senseless attempts of derailing one expects from commenters who have their privilege threatened.Yet, importantly, they were all civil. Not a single one attacked me personally. They attacked my arguments, but they never attacked me. Compare this to the many brave women who have spoken up about the Absolution and Tomb Raider trailers -- and who have spoken up about similar issues for years. Those who have so much more at stake in these discussions than I could ever have, who routinely get cut down if they dare speak up. Whereas my readers told me what was wrong with my argument, their readers tell them what is wrong with them. Sarah Ditum wrote one of the first and most succinct articles detailing what is problematic about the Absolution trailer at CVG. I took several


Michelle Starr was told she should “grow a pair”.

block quotes from her article to use in my own, as she found the words that I never could. The comments she received tell her to “get over it”, tell her that she is being “too sensitive”; one particularly clever commenter says “Sorry, darling, I wasn’t listening.” At the Australian site CNet, Michelle Starr’s similarly excellent column was met with a wave of criticism directed towards her personally. She is told she is a “silly, easily offended woman”, that she is “over-reacting”, and, most bizarrely and telling, that she should “grow a pair”. This last one says it all: if Starr -- if any woman -- wants to fit into the gaming community, they should become more male. Starr followed up her first post with another that compared the comments she received with those that male writers such as myself and Mark Serrels at Kotaku Australia received for our dissension. It’s pretty telling. Men are disagreed with. Women are discredited. They are made out to be hysterical and not worth listening to or engaging with, and thus easier to ignore. Nobody did that to my post, despite it being the most ‘hysterical’ of them all. People engaged with it that would have dismissed the same article written by a woman out of hand. People listened to my post, made a fuss over and didn’t discredit my post,

ctrl+alt+defeat in part, simply because a man wrote it. This is a privilege I have. A privilege that women writers don’t have in the games community. If they speak up, they get harassed into silence. If they still refuse to back down, the misogyny gets worse, as we have seen recently with the increasingly vile and shocking tirade against Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian for her Kickstarter project “Tropes vs Women in Video Games”. It makes me angry that my post caused the constructive commotion it did predominately because I am male. Or, more accurately, it was not written off and dismissed simply because I am not female. The whole experience taught me just what my responsibility actually is as an ally. It’s not enough for me to just link to something written at The Border House or Shakesville and leave it at that. Not wanting to speak for the women writers more than capable of speaking for themselves is not a good enough excuse to say nothing at all. Somewhere between ‘staying out of it’ and ‘speaking for women’ is the ability for privileged writers such as myself to use our privileged position in gaming culture to amplify the message. The ability to make sure it isn’t discredited and dismissed. That, more than anything, is what I learned out of this whole ordeal, this whole discussion that even as I write

this continues to snowball towards what I really hope is a tipping point. I have the privilege of being listened to without dismissal, so I have the responsibility of making sure people actually listen.

Men are disagreed with. Women are discredited.

Photos by Ivan Salas Quit Pretending There Isn’t A Videogame Rape Culture by Brendan Keogh -- Hitman Trailer Exposes the Weird, Writhing Sexual Politics Inside Games by Sarah Ditum How Hitman Is Insulting Us All by Michelle Starr --





Race in Rapture Scott Juster


ioShock 2 and its side story, Minerva’s Den do much to expand the world of Rapture. In addition to new technology and physical locations, they take the story into new cultural territory with an expanded cast of characters. Grace Holloway and Charles Milton Porter stand out as the first major black characters in the BioShock universe. However, the two characters each have unique, multifaceted lives that prevent them from being cast as the token black people in a game dominated by white characters. At the same time, their racial identity informs their lives and connects them to wider historical events and cultural themes in African American history. In 2010, an article written by Jim Sterling and a response from Robert Yang demonstrated the difficult task of portraying people from historically underrepresented groups in video games. Sterling praised

Fallout: New Vegas’s portrayal of Arcade Gannon, one of the game’s homosexual characters. Sterling praised Gannon as a character “realized so superbly, that you might not even know he’s gay at all”. Sterling appreciated this as a change from other gay video game characters who are “treated as borderline offensive jokes or identified almost exclusively by their gender preferences”. However, in arguing “all media would do well to not make such a big deal out of homosexuality”, Sterling suggests a kind of blindness to diversity that Yang identifies as a form of discrimination: “Prescribing some kind of ‘ideal gay’ who doesn’t ‘broadcast it’ is just as artificial, boring and negative as the stale stereotypes so often invoked in network sitcoms and those god awful reality shows on Bravo,” While the impulse to avoid caricaturing traditionally underrepresented populations is understandable,

ignoring people’s backgrounds can erase important parts of their identities. As Yang argues, “more often than not, being non-straight, non-male or nonwhite is going to affect your life in some profound way” that deserves to be recognized. Impressively, BioShock 2 manages to present Holloway and Porter’s blackness as a significant aspect of their identity, but it is communicated subtly enough to avoid turning them into shallow stereotypes. Denis Farr’s excellent piece on Grace Holloway (“Characters Done Right: BioShock 2’s Grace Holloway”) illustrates her as a character with a unique story whose life also contains aspects “based on history”. After experiencing bigotry and economic hardships on the surface, Holloway and her lover, James, move to Rapture in search of a fresh start. The promise of Rapture’s purely meritocratic society is soon replaced by disappointment. Holloway suffers a personal blow when she learns she is infertile. This hardship is compounded by the depressingly familiar social stratification in Rapture. The underwater city’s social equality proves to be as fragile as its crumbling infrastructure, and Holloway is quick to note how fast historical prejudices reappear: “Andrew Ryan told me that in Rapture it didn’t matter where you came from. Bunk! Times got hard and all our old bigotries bubbled right back up.” Holloway and her husband find themselves living in slums, confronted with rac-


ctrl+alt+defeat ism, and subject to hypocritical leaders. Holloway’s musical talent earns her some fame, but when she uses her talent to lobby lyrical criticism at Rapture’s founder Andrew Ryan, James mysteriously “disappears”. Like many black Americans throughout history, Holloway hoped to escape prejudice through emigration. Sadly, her story is a familiar one. Throughout the nineteenth century, the American Colonization Society sought to both entice and pressure freedmen to leave the United States for Liberia. While it offered hope to some, the ACS’s mission was deeply flawed by racism that preached racial separatism and endorsed a destructive form of colonialism. Emigrants who escaped the failed Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War often found that anti-slavery sentiments did not necessarily correlate with anti-racism. De jure segregation in the form of explicitly racist laws made it extraordinarily difficult to escape institutional and cultural racism well into the twentieth century. Even today, Jim Crow’s insidious spirit lingers in forms of de facto segregation like “redlining”, a practice in which banks and businesses selectively avoid specific locations populated by minority groups. This often takes the form of withholding investments in particular neighborhoods or refusing to offer fair loans to specific ethnic groups. Holloway’s search for an egalitarian society is not


Neither Rapture nor Jonestown could exorcise the demons that lived within their inhabitants. unique, nor is Rapture’s failure to live up to its stated ideals. Her motives for moving to Rapture and the experiences she has there deepen her as a character while also connecting her to a larger story about racism in society. Perhaps the most chilling connection between Holloway’s story and our world lies in the story of The Peoples Temple and Jonestown. The Jonestown story sounds like something from the BioShock universe: Jim Jones, a charismatic religious figure who preached a form of religiously tinged communism leaves the US to create a utopian society in Guyana. His promises of a communist, anti-racist paradise attracted many black Americans, who made up

the majority of Jonestown’s population. In 1978, Jonestown collapsed after the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan and the Jim Jones-orchestrated mass muder/suicide of approximately 900 people. Is Jonestown so different from Rapture? In many ways, the video game is only a slight embellishment on reality: Both Rapture and Jonestown were built around a charismatic leader whose ideals both attracted followers and ultimately caused unimaginable pain. Both were promoted around white leaders who promised societies based on merit and inclusion rather than race. Both places were built largely in secret and their leaders tried to protect their independence through isolationism. Ultimately, neither Rapture nor Jonestown could keep the world out, nor could they exorcise the demons that lived within their inhabitants. We sometimes think of audio logs as trite storytelling devices in video games, but part of our knowledge about the last hours of Jonestown comes from those supposed narrative crutches. While exploring Rapture, it’s tempting to ask whether people would really bother to record their thoughts for posterity as their utopia crumbled. Jonestown reminds us why the phrase “the truth is stranger than fiction” is a cliche. Grace Holloway’s story centers around a character whose individual experiences and perseverance give her a unique identity,

ctrl+alt+defeat thus supporting Yang’s point regarding the importance of recognizing (rather than downplaying) diversity. The explicit acknowledgement of her race is a boon to her character and the game as a whole: Grace’s blackness connects her struggles to broader historical issues and strengthens BioShock 2’s social commentary. BioShock 2’s add-on Minerva’s Den presents the story of Charles Porter. As is the case with Grace Holloway, the game explicitly acknowledges Porter as a black character whose race adds layers to his identity without turning him into a stereotype. Like Holloway, Porter has led a life of mixed blessings: A highly intelligent computer engineer, Porter tragically loses his wife before he is able to make amends for the time he spent working away from her. In collaboration with Alan Turing, Porter tries to soothe his pain by creating an artificial intelligence that can reunite him with his wife via technology. Porter recognizes his spiral into depression and acknowledges his quest to bring his wife back is misguided, yet he still struggles to accept the loss. Even as one of the city’s foremost minds, Porter faces racism in Rapture. Despite the city’s avowed philosophy of pure meritocracy, Porter finds a familiar Euro-centric social structure beneath Rapture’s egalitarian veneer:

Too bad for some folks you can’t splice in common sense.

Sure you hear it in Rapture. One of the business types asked me, “Why don’t you splice white? Get ahead!” “Well, that’s some idiocy!” I told him, “First of all I AM ahead. Second, in Rapture it’s your work that’s supposed to matter, not your skin!”Too bad for some folks you can’t splice in common sense. Like Holloway, Porter finds this supposedly post-racial society has inherited the prejudices carried by those who compose it. Porter’s race has a real impact on his life and this is reflected in the game’s themes. Porter further illustrates the realities of Rapture’s society, as well as our own. In both BioShock and BioShock 2, the player-controlled

characters have intentionally vague identities that serve as “blank slates” for the player’s own personality. However, at the end of Minerva’s Den, it is revealed that the “Charles Porter” talking to Subject Sigma (the Big Daddy character the player has controlled through the entire story) is actually an AI program and that the real Charles Porter is the player’s avatar. What once seemed to be a hollow shell with an undefined identity is suddenly revealed to be the complex person whose story the player spends the entire game unraveling. It is a subversive moment similar to when Samus or Chell are revealed to be female: In a medium whose marquee games usually feature white protagonists, playing as a black man is itself a significant departure. The game’s mechanics and dynamics increase the importance of Porter’s race, as they play into themes that connect him to historic and artistic portrayals of black characters. Porter’s racial identity renders his enslavement as a Big Daddy both personally and historically tragic. By attempting to destroy Porter’s identity, the people that turned him into a Big Daddy participated in the familiar practice of trying to dehumanize people in order to control them. As was the case with Africans captured in the slave trade, Porter underwent physical and psychological assaults aimed at turning him into an unthinking beast so that he could be used as a tool to support the


ctrl+alt+defeat market and moral economies of an exploitative society. Acknowledging Porter’s race imbues his journey to reclaim his individuality with emotional weight and historical significance. Porter is striving to recapture his own intellect and the memories of his loved ones, but he is also traveling down a well worn road, one walked by Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs, and countless other anonymous people. Because the game acknowledges Porter as a racial minority, his role as a Big Daddy and his relationship to the Little Sisters cannot be viewed from a color-blind perspective. After it is revealed that Porter is Subject Sigma, his relationship to the Little Sisters begins to resemble another entry in the complex artistic tradition of little white girls and their black guardians. I played the game protecting and saving all the Little Sisters. After realizing Porter was Subject Sigma, I could not shake the feeling I had been acting out a variation of Uncle Tom’s story: Each Little Sister was an “Eva”, that needed protection, and in return furthered their black protector’s path to redemption. Listening to the gleeful banter of the Little Sisters and entertaining them with inventive ways of killing splicers suddenly resembled a twisted Shirley Temple number. In my playthrough, Charles Porter’s social status was mediated through little white girls in a way most of the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson characters were. Both Porter and


Robinson found themselves trying to balance the challenge of maintaining their identities while being forced to perform for the benefit of a privileged social class. Depending on how one played the game, Porter’s relationship with the Little Sisters could also allude to more explicitly violent imagery. The Big Daddy has always been portrayed as a brutish entity that can vacillate between simple-minded devotion and viciousness. By revealing Subject Sigma as a black man, Minerva’s Den recalls images of black people as savage beasts or threats to white virtue. The game joins in a long line of works that partake in the contradictory tropes of the black man as both a monstrous threat to white virtue as well as its protector. Without explicit acknowledgements of Holloway and Porter’s blackness, they would be weaker characters and BioShock 2 would be a less culturally relevant work. By addressing the ways in which Holloway’s and Porter’s racial identities inform their lives, the game connects itself to larger historical realities and cultural traditions. Porter and Holloway aren’t the kinds of minority caricatures that Jim Sterling decried, but they avoid the subtle discrimination of enforced conformity that Robert Yang describes. BioShock 2 does not shy away from the complexity of race, but it does not sacrifice the depth of its characters in pursuit of an

oversimplified message. Grace Holloway and Charles Porter have unique stories formed by their life experiences, including those that stem from being black in a majority-white society. Some parts of their story, such as Holloway’s yearning for a family or Porter’s grief over his wife, apply across all demographics. Others, such as Holloway’s search for an anti-racist society and Porter’s enslavement, have specific connections to themes that run through African American history and the portrayal of black characters in US culture. Ignoring Holloway’s and Porter’s race would have been just as damaging as making them shallow stereotypes; their distinctive backgrounds enrich Rapture’s world and establish BioShock 2 as work of art that engages with the broader culture in which it exists.

Photos by Vox Efx A version of this piece was originally published on Homosexuality and Fallout: New Vegas: A Gay Marriage Made in Gay Heaven by Jim Sterling -- Gay (But Not “Gay”) Characters in Video Games by Robert Yang -- Characters Done Right: BioShock 2’s Grace Holloway by Denis Farr -- Race and the King Kong Motif by Gwen Sharp --






Jewish Characters and Themes in Video Games From Rabbinical Dialog Combat to the Chainsaw of Divine Wisdom

Bogi TakĂĄcs


ews as an ethnic or religious group are highly visible in mainstream television, but they are markedly missing from video games. Have there been any Jews in games? How are they portrayed? Strangely enough, one of the most prominently Jewish-themed games technically does not even feature a Jewish protagonist! Some titles do not necessarily offend religious Jews, but they really inconvenience them...

Ambiguously Jewish? The Jewishness of most video game characters is ambiguous at best. Hershel Layton, the protagonist of the Professor Layton series, has a

Jewish first name and he never takes off his hat, but does that make him Jewish? Similarly, Otacon of Metal Gear Solid fame is allegedly Jewish, and the character does make casual references to the family fleeing the Nazis, dropping words in Yiddish and so on. But again, his ethnic or religious affiliation is not explicitly stated, even though Metal Gear Solid likes to play with Jewish themes -- the fourth game had a Hebrew opening song, infamous for being well-nigh unintelligible to Hebrew speakers. Possibly the most amusing case of alleged Jewishness in video games is the Team Fortress 2 medic, who plays into all the Nazi stereotypes

and who lived through WWII in Germany according to his backstory -- but he’s confirmed by the developers not to be a Nazi. This in turn has prompted fans to speculate about his being a German Jew.

Rabbinical dialog combat Are there characters who are explicitly Jewish? Yes, but there are surprisingly few of them, and this is only changing very slowly. However, recently there have been not one but two Jewish-themed games, which are possibly different from each other in every other aspect. It might be worthwhile to discuss these in detail and contrast them whenever possible.



Chronologically, the first one is the small indie adventure game The Shivah. This was the first commercially released game of developer Dave Gilbert, who has since then gone on to found the adventure game publishing company Wadjet Eye Games, which released many titles to critical acclaim. The Shivah is a down-toearth detective story with a present-day setting. It features a mostly Jewish cast and a protagonist who’s a rabbi. Rabbi Russell Stone is an angry, bitter man in charge of a run-down synagogue and an alienated congregation. A former member dies in strange circumstances and leaves the rabbi a significant sum. The police show up and Rabbi Stone has to do some sleuthing himself to prove his innocence. Lead developer Dave Gilbert is Jewish, and he drew inspiration for the story from his own background. The rabbi belongs to the Conservative movement -- this might make his role and activities easier to comprehend for a secular audience. Dave Gilbert himself is not religious; maybe that’s why Rabbi Stone is more reminiscent of a secular person’s idea of a rabbi than an actual rabbi, regardless of denomination. Yet he is still an interesting character, and the tension between his cynical outlook and his religious lifestyle keeps the story engaging. There is also an amount of humor, mostly


One of the most prominently Jewish-themed games does not even feature a Jewish protagonist.

arising from the Jewish custom of answering a question with a question. This is taken to its logical extreme: Monkey Island-style dialog combat with a rabbinical flavor.

Divine names E-l Sha-ddai: Ascension of the Metatron is as different from The Shivah as possible. It’s a big-budget action game for consoles and it was developed by a Japanese team led by Takeyasu Sawaki. He wasn’t motivated by a personal connection; the idea was floated by the publisher’s UK office. (The game’s intro sequence states “This video game was inspired by ancient religious texts and has been designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.”)

The game was in fact inspired by the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal work from antiquity. While the complete text of the Book of Enoch is only available in Ge’ez, many scholars assume it was originally written in Hebrew or possibly Aramaic. In any case, it is a Jewish religious work, though it is theologically very distant from present-day normative Judaism. The plot focuses on Enoch (Chanoch in Hebrew), the protagonist of the eponymous book who also makes a very brief appearance in the Hebrew Bible. While he is not Jewish per se -- he lived before Judaism came into being -- he is described in the biblical text as a “righteous man”, and one of the patriarchs; as such, an

ctrl+alt+defeat important forerunner to the Jewish people. So what does Enoch look like in the otherwise very eclectic game? Oddly enough, he fits the Japanese anime stereotype of Westerners, especially Americans: large, muscular, blonde, and with a pronounced jaw. He definitely doesn’t appear to be Middle Eastern. The game uses Hebrew names in large profusion: many famous angels make an appearance, including the four archangels. The traditional attributes are reallocated: for example, Gavriel is described as the archangel of healing (instead of Refael). From a Jewish standpoint, the most problematic aspect is the title of the game itself -- it contains Hebrew divine names, which are generally avoided in writing by traditional Jews, as any written instance of divine names needs to be protected from erasure. (To avoid any complications which could arise from printing out the magazine, we’ve broken up the name with hyphens.) As the name does not play a part in the game’s plot, this choice is frankly puzzling -- the most it achieves is inconveniencing observant Jews. One aspect of the original text is extremely well-captured though. Enoch of the Book of Enoch is somewhat of a Gary Stu character -picture-perfect, praised even by the angels. (It makes one wonder whether this aspect

His weapon is a chainsaw “of divine wisdom”.

was what stood in the way of canonization, besides the concept of fallen angels.) Enoch in the game is a modern version of the same trope: he participates in motorbike duels with fallen angels, one of his weapons is essentially a chainsaw “of divine wisdom”, he goes from one moment of awesome to another and he’s seemingly capable of everything. The end result is not particularly offensive -- it’s more hilarious than anything: a wild romp through time and space, with angelic creatures who look like anime monsters. These two examples demonstrate that there are many possible ways of tackling Jewish themes in video games. An insider perspective leads to more accuracy -- and as we have seen, fewer potential

inconveniences! The usual Jewish advice in case of a religious question is “ask your local rabbi” -- this can only be recommended to game developers. Content creators often shy away from Jewish themes, or just biblical and related themes in general, probably for fear of producing offending material. But with a little research, these hurdles can be cleared with ease -- and background research is indispensable related to any other ethnic and religious group that appears in video games, anyway. As mainstream gaming often suffers from derivative settings and plots, looking beyond the well-worn themes would benefit everyone.

Photo by Anna Fox



Queer Explorers in an Intimate Frontier Mattie Brice

Oh my.


he camera followed the water spilling down Samantha Traynor’s body, adding contrast to her curves. She was speaking, but I was distracted when her videogame-perfect belly turned into clearer view. Shepard was smirking, turned away but imagining what I peeped. Outside of the scene, I was squealing in anticipation, wrapped in a blanket with a half-finished wine glass not too far away. The set up was like a cheesy porno pretending to be something sincere, and I couldn’t parse what to do. I wanted to get to know the woman using my shower in a friendly way before we hopped into bed, as Shepard usually attempts to be polite about this sort of affairs.


“I play for keeps,” says the hot subordinate in the shower, and sexual curiosity takes over. Shepard doesn’t miss a beat after I click [Join Her], and I resume squealing as she enters the shower with Traynor. It wasn’t until the post-coital chit-chat, playing with each other’s Alliance fleet-issued lacy underwear, that I remembered Shepard was in a long term relationship with a moody blue alien. That moody part was from me; I fell out of interest with Liara between games, but Shepard still cared for her. I downed the rest of my glass, attempting to wash away the guilt. Not only is the universe under attack by giant space squids, but Shepard has to manage her infidelity. Except it didn’t work that way. My alien girlfriend made


some ambiguously threatening remarks, signaling her knowledge of my affair seconds after it happened, and never engaged Shepard with an actual conversation. Soon enough, Traynor was talking about a future with white-picket fences, but no scenes to flesh out the situation or bail. The game locked me into a long-term, romantic relationship because a primal part of myself chose to join a twisting vixen in the shower the first time we were ever alone together. In hindsight, I should have known better.Videogames often conflate sex with love, as if you can’t have one without the other. The Mass Effect series is a flagship example, despite the praise it gets for its charming characters. Players just have to say the nice

options in dialogue, and just before the final mission, they are treated to a sex scene with said character. Romance is extremely uncomplicated; there aren’t ambiguous options with no best answer, and once you choose something resembling “Yeah, let’s do it,” everyone else is suddenly uninterested in you and treats you like every other comrade. My situation with Traynor and Shepard in Mass Effect 3 was a result of being too used to conventions of the series; I assumed because we weren’t at the final act, sex couldn’t box me into a relationship with her. Romance is a contested area in games. Many designers I’ve spoken to have a hard time imagining intimacy outside what is convention-

ally produced. That is, a route of dialogue options, mostly unambiguous, and structured on binary thinking. Alternatives, such as a larger amount of variables and dialogue, are often scrutinized by the time and money they’d consume for what is perceived to just be flavor. There’s a pane of glass we keep running into with this topic. I am quick to attribute this to the homogenous makeup of developers and target audiences, which usually affects all things gender and sexuality in games. With many surveys and frequent research, the disparity between the target demographic and the actual makeup of people who play games isn’t a question anymore. However, romance in games often sticks to action movie scripts and adolescent boys’ wish fulfillment. I took


ctrl+alt+defeat to queer games instead, or at least, games made by queer folk which in turn imply queer romance. In particular, Anna Anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuckme and Christine Love’s Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story provide answers for this dilemma. These are only two games in a larger phenomenon; let it be known that queer games are constantly deconstructing conventional thought on what can and cannot be done, thoughts typically limited by the rigid definitions we put on games. To quote Raph Koster, Anthropy’s Dys4ia (an autobiographical game concerning transition) “could be built in PowerPoint and isn’t a game”. That many old guard developers and gamers dismiss these works as not being games shows an artistic hurdle many have yet to frolic over. Encyclopedia and Don’t Take It Personally elevate intimacy past canned plot responses to actual mechanics. Romance tends to feel tacked onto games because, well, that’s exactly what’s happening. There isn’t really a synchronous mechanic that involves the player with the actual act of intimacy, instead, they are just above triggers along a predictable path of “getting the girl”. Encyclopedia makes this evident by having the decisions the player makes force them to make sense of their own feelings. It presents an unfamiliar situation saturated with sexuality, taunting you to find the “good” ending, and parallels it with the negotia-


Lets the player emotionally experience sex negotiation. tion dynamics of BDSM.You might not be aroused by the scenes, but the sexually charged description distracts you from being cool-headed, much like the protagonist. Similar to exploring a sexual partner for the first time, the player is determined to find the good ending amidst the multiple misleading paths. The game is structured to discourage extreme, polar behavior in favor of nuance.You don’t control the player character as closely as Shepard, but how Encyclopedia involves the player lets them emotionally experience sex negotiation instead of watching it on the screen.

The same goes for Don’t Take It Personally, which keeps the meat of the relationships out of the player’s control (as the title warns us). The game forces you into a peeping role, which is more honest. Instead of making the player bring their baggage to a relationship and having the ability to game it, the constant stream of Facebook-like updates and personal messages informs the player of the social dynamics going on. Choices are indeed presented in a typical fashion, but usually when the main character is disconnected from the internet. Those situations feel a little more panicked because you are away from your main source of information when it comes to your students. These choices are like tests; they purposefully put you in awkward situations solely because the main character is aware of things he shouldn’t be. This mirrors the relationship players have with their games, critiquing the usual set-up of playing god without being personally affected. It forces the player to consider the dilemmas of these characters’ relationships instead of having a predetermined manner in how they will play out. One must contemplate how it feels to be a girl, still practicing relationship skills, who loses the boy she’s in love with to another boy. During the first run-through it is easy to punish her in the name of progression and to aim all catharsis at her, but due to the multiple playthrough nature of the game, the player has to empathize with her


A sexual dynamic relegated to deviants.

position to get the whole picture. Queer games have a salient pattern of exploring relationships past initially obtaining them. Mainstream games put the focus on wooing and nabbing the love interest, but what comes of the actual relationship is always a mystery. The satire is particularly thick in Don’t Take It Personally because the relationship you can initiate isn’t one the player is going to feel particularly good about. Even if the main character does go through with it, witnessing the clandestine affair is painful. Instead, the focus is watching one couple deal with breaking up and getting back

together, and a new relationship that transgresses taboos and forces both partners to form new identities. Because both of these are queer relationships and the likelihood of the player being heterosexual and cisgender are high, forcing the person playing it to bring meaning would rob many people of an experience they may have never witnessed before. Narratives of queer relationships aren’t commonly available, so the experience would have been lost if the player was involved with choosing every aspect of these relationships. Encyclopedia drops the player in the middle of a relationship with plenty of sexual history and rules to get acquainted with. Here, there is little the player brings with them to the story, however a new relationship emerges. The main villain is reminiscent of the designer herself and you are constantly at war with her divisive tactics. How the player decides to find out the system’s pleasure spot is discovering something personal about Anna. Again, manipulating the relationship between the protagonist and villain would have undermined its meaning, because the player lacks the intimacy required to make it realistic. The main character goes through the physical adversity while the player gets the mental fuck; once the game is over, Anna has trained you to be a proper sub. These are just samples

from a growing body of work that embody queer values and experiences often left out of the canon. Romance in mainstream games is typically bittersweet to queer gamers, as games centered around obtaining a relationship don’t inherently contain the narratives of queer experiences. It wasn’t common for presently queer adults to openly chase and court love interests like one sees in games due to intense discrimination of queer sexualities. More true to queer intimacy is a reliance on the internet (Don’t Take It Personally) and groping at sexual dynamic relegated to deviants (Encyclopedia). Queer games also critique the typical heterosexual narrative ignoring its own issues; with divorce being so prevalent, why aren’t there situations surrounding that? In a world that denies cultural partnering rituals to certain groups of people, why aren’t there games that address heterosexual couples’ conflict with keeping sacred with what they keep from others? It sounds like romance in games needs to get a little more queer.

Photos by podoboq




created my first costume in 2006 in preparation for my first-ever convention, the tiny Final Fantasy XI Fan-Fest, held in Santa Monica, CA. It was a small gathering of FFXI players to hear about future changes to the game, ask developers questions, and preview the upcoming expansion. And there was a costume contest. My Summoner Artifact set costume didn’t come close to winning, but I had a blast taking part in big group photos with other costumed fans. That was how I became hooked on cosplay. While the word “cosplay” wasn’t used in the US until anime started to become popular in the 1990s, costuming has been a hobby here since at least the 1970s (think Star Trek conventions and Renaissance Faires). Back when I made my first costume, cosplay was still considered a weird, niche thing in the American video game community online. But over the past six years, cosplayers have become an increasingly common sight at video game conventions and in online communities, partially because game developers encourage cosplay by holding costume contests and recognizing cosplayers at fan conventions. Cosplayers face a lot less ridicule from their fellow gamers than before, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still serious problems, especially when it comes to issues of diversity. Cosplayers from marginalized groups are far more likely to face harassment and


Diversity and Cosplay An Overview

Alexandra Raymond

ridicule online and in person. One of the biggest problems in the cosplay community is the racism and misogyny faced by cosplayers of color. There aren’t that many black characters in video games, anime, and other geeky media, and the ones that do exist are often stereotypes that cosplayers may not want to portray. But when black cosplayers dress up as a character that is perceived to be white or Asian, they will often have to deal with racist comments disguised as commentary about “accuracy”, no matter how good their costume actually is. Cosplayers of color are often dubbed “bad” simply because of their skin color. Similarly, cosplayers who, like the overwhelming majority of people,

aren’t as thin as the character they are playing, will have to deal with disparaging comments online and even in person about how they shouldn’t be cosplaying that character, or at all (this is especially true for women). These critics say they just care about the accuracy of a costume, but the focus on the cosplayer’s body shows that this is just a thin cover for racism and misogyny. And these comments are by no means limited to observers but occur within the cosplay community as well. Of course, cosplayers who fit hegemonic beauty standards -- who have light skin, who are thin-but-not-toothin, and who are otherwise considered conventionally at-

ctrl+alt+defeat tractive -- face issues from the geek community as well. Major geek websites post galleries of cosplay photos, often focusing on conventionally attractive women who portray characters in skimpy outfits (this is changing, as many of the largest sites such as Kotaku and Comics Alliance focus on well-made costumes portrayed by people of any gender, but it is still common practice in many sections of the geek community online). These cosplayers will then have to deal with a deluge of objectifying and sometimes sexually violent comments. Women’s bodies are considered public property in general, but especially so for a female cosplayer: people assume that because she’s in costume, a cosplayer is dressing up for the benefit of others, especially straight male viewers. The assumption leads some straight male commenters to feel entitled to make sexual comments about cosplayers -- announcing whether the commenter deems them fuckable or not, since this is the standard to which women are judged -- and offer “helpful” advice on how to be more appealing, or what characters the person should portray. But many or even most cosplayers create and don costumes for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with appealing to the straight male gaze: as an expression of fandom, as a crafting challenge, as an artistic interpretation of a character, as a chance to roleplay, as a way to participate in an activity with other fans.

As cosplayer Subito Allegra writes in her Feminist Cosplay Manifesto: Believe it or not, cosplay is an art form, and as with any art form, I invite you to critique the costume.Talk to me about craftsmanship, fabric/materials choice, tailoring, whatever.Talk to me about the technical aspects of physically portraying a character. But my body is the canvas, not the product, and don’t forget that this canvas is a human being with thoughts and feelings and opinions. To move forward, the geek community needs to shed its racism and misogyny, including the way it is directed at cosplayers. I want the geek community to be a place where

everyone feels comfortable cosplaying the character they want, regardless of their skin color or body type, and where wearing a skimpy outfit isn’t an invitation for either harassment or slut-shaming. Change starts in our own communities; don’t make these sorts of disparaging comments, and ask others not to make them, either. Let’s make it happen.

Photos: author’s personal archive


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Voice of Command, Body in Peril

Nick LaLone


ne problem that occurs when talking about gendered differences between and among video games is how often culture of origin is ignored. Games come from different people within different cultures that are socialized into different expressions of gender. Do we evaluate the content of games coming from Japan with the same criteria as that of games made in Europe, the United States, or Canada? The answer to this question is rather complex and it will take more than the content of this article to truly address it but in all matters, the concept of privilege can be applied to any group of people who have authority to force other people to act differently than their local culture has socialized them to. About video games, we can say (reasonably), that there is a difference between games in how the culture the game-makers come from is expressed within the virtual environment. So

with this discussion in mind, I have set about doing some preliminary research in order to begin to compare, contrast, and evaluate the difference of culture as expressed through video games. What I wanted to know was, “How is ‘gender’ expressed in games made by different cultures?” This article is just one side of that research. Specifically, this article is about the representations of female NPCs and in-game mathematics applied to female characters of popular American or European developed games made around 2009 that appeared on the Xbox 360. The games included in this sample are: Assassin’s Creed Bioshock Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Fallout 3 Gears of War 2 Grand Theft Auto IV Halo 3 Halo 3: ODST Left 4 Dead The method for this game

was not “mindful play” but a pre-generated series of questions answered per NPC and per moment when gender mattered. A driving discussion this evaluation wanted to address was narrative change based on the gender or ethnicity of the character. This discussion was astoundingly short. Aside from changes in reference to gender -- “sir”, “madam”, “lady”, “man” -the answer is a resounding no. While one game, Fallout 3, accommodated race by making most members of the starting group the same race the player chooses, changes stopped there. In general, each of these games pointed to a continuation of gendered stereotypes. In general, these games perpetuate stereotypes by representing women as beings who rely entirely on men, are nurturing, need protection because they cannot protect themselves, and are typically represented by a general sexualized presence (perfect physical features). The data


ctrl+alt+defeat gave a rather shallow appearance to the female gender as seen through video games. However, as the analysis went on, I began to notice some things that said otherwise. For example, while women in roleplaying games started with lower physical traits, they were often mathematically stronger through magical or technological means. The representation of women as superior intellectually while weaker physically carried into video games with central male characters that would often be ascribed a very masculine tone.

Intelligence Games like Halo 3 (Master Chief) and Gears of War 2 (Marcus Fenix) were filled with male violence against other males with females in positions of intelligence. Almost all of these games have a female character that is either providing knowledge of the game world, or is in position of “intelligence” (generally military intelligence positions). Halo 3 and Gears of War 2 both had women who instructed the male characters play as part of military intelligence or were operatives of military intelligence. In Halo 3, Master Chief, the main character, must hunt down the artificial intelligence that he needs in order to know how to destroy an evil entity known as Gravemind. This A.I. is a woman named Cortana, a sexualized, blue hologram who, when she talks, commands every male’s undivided attention. Halo 3: ODST features more humanlike characters that also rely on a female character. This


game features a female intelligence officer named Veronica -- call sign Dare. Dare tells her five person team that they need to go into enemy territory to recover something but will not reveal what. At the beginning of the game, Dare and the team’s commander, Buck, are shown to have a romantic past. When things go wrong and Dare is kidnapped, Buck reassembles his team and eventually mounts a rescue operation for Dare. At the end of the game, Dare tells Buck that she knew he would come back for him because of his feelings for her. Without the romantic connection, Dare implies Buck would have just left her for dead.

Peril A side effect for being the center of information and “physically weaker” is that female characters often end up being used to force emotional responses due to violence done to them or even complete loss. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare only features one female character in the entire game aside from news reports between levels. Toward the middle of the game, an evacuation of a Middle Eastern city is ordered due to the threat of a nuclear device rumored to be present. As the American Military retreats, a helicopter is shot down. The player is then forced to rescue the pilot of the downed helicopter, a woman. This woman, along with the player and the city, are then killed in a nuclear explosion. Perhaps because of their mental prowess as-

signed to them by the mostly male design teams each of these games deployed, female characters are often and significantly weaker physically than their male counterparts. In Grand Theft Auto IV, the player can stand in place at, let’s say, a restaurant, and watch as non-playable characters go about their preprogrammed routine. Quite often, these programmatically expressed “day-to-day” routines often follow stereotypical generated content. On the radio, a player will constantly overhear men being chastised for following women’s orders while in-game, women can be seen telling men what to do. For men, according to GTA IV, threatening women with violence seems to be the only course to fight this overwhelming authority unless the environment doesn’t include women at all. In the world of men or the world of crime in GTA IV, women seem to be there to be traded or used as weak points to threaten other crime bosses. There are numerous “missions” that involve kidnapping a woman or killing a woman as revenge. In GTA IV, the player must commit a crime and hi-jack a car in order to drive around in the gigantic city the game takes place in. In doing this through the time I spent with this game, I began to notice something: it was very rare for a woman to be driving a car. Once I noticed this, I began to stand in streets robbing every car I could find. Out of 300 cars I robbed, there were 17 women driving (Fig.

ctrl+alt+defeat 1). The rest were all male. Occasionally, there would be a passenger who was a female but this was roughly the same amount of time as women were driving. Most passengers were also male. There are many ways to interpret this circumstance. First, the programmers may have felt that in order to reduce some controversy (as this series is prone to extreme amounts of controversy), they may have made the game engine not produce as many female drivers in order to avoid having women be the unintentional targets of necessary violence. The second possible explanation is that of a misogynistic view that “women should not be driving”. In either case, there is no real way to know without asking the programmers. Because of their seemingly overwhelming signaling of intelligence and delicacy, in games where women could participate in physical activities like war or battles between people, women were often behind the men casting spells or using ranged weapons.

Physical Prowess In Fallout 3, men often ran at the player with knives or bats or pipes and tried to bludgeon the player while women remained in the background and shot at you with guns or threw bombs. While this is not always true, it was true often enough to be a pattern. The most striking example of this type of behavior was in Left 4 Dead. I went into the game expecting the four characters to be equal in ability. However, as I

Fig. 1, Gender of drivers in GTA IV, Sample of 300

was playing this game, I played through each level twice for a total of about eight hours, and noticed that the woman in the game, Zoey, was consistently getting scored at the bottom on “Most Zombies Killed”. I began to watch Zoey and what she did. I noticed that she often picked up the sniper rifle and was behind the men, picking zombies off one by one. Her behavior mimicked the introductory movie: the men protected her while she watched over things from behind. It was this occurrence that made me start testing for more circumstances like it. In looking at the trends of information in FPS games, the idea that women are more intelligent than males seemed to carry over into other game types. The case for this is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. When making a character in Oblivion, I looked for a recommendation for making a character. On GameFaqs, I found a comprehensive guide made by a gamer named Barry Scott Will. In this guide, Will shows the starting

statistics for each racial type a player can choose for their character. Ignoring the initial statistics for race, women seem to excel in intelligence, willpower, and personality. Women are docked 30 points for Strength and 30 points in Endurance but gain 20 points for Intelligence, 25 points for Personality, 15 points for Willpower. Concurrently, men are docked 20 points in Intelligence, 25 points in Personality, 15 points in Willpower but gain 30 points in Strength and 30 points in Endurance (Fig. 2). In Oblivion women will excel at classes meant for magic (damage based on Willpower and Intelligence) and men will excel at classes that are physical (damage based on Strength and Endurance). While skills count more in the mathematical calculations for damage and defense, a male and female with the same skills will significantly differ. This mathematical representation of similar female characteristics in other types of games give mathematical representation of the stereotypes the other video games only tell us


ctrl+alt+defeat Fig. 2, Male v female character stats in Oblivion (gains & penalties)

through narrative. In general, it seems that game makers view women as intelligent, fragile holders of information and sexuality who would be better in the back hurling spells or shooting arrows than on the front lines with the men. In Fallout 3, the player has choices. This is a game that centers on moral choice between the greater good or vice and selfishness. The player has a “karma� rating. The more karma a player has, the more help in-game characters will offer the player. The less karma a player has the more evil the player is and the less help they will receive. All decisions in-game effect karma or the ability to kill or charm more effectively. Only one choice is irreversible: gender. By choosing a gender, the player gains access to one of two traits (bonuses associated with being a particular thing): Black Widow or Lady Killer. For males,


the character that comes out of the tutorial gains access to a trait that offers 10% more damage to women and unique dialogue choices (Lady Killer). If the player chooses to be a female, they gain a similar bonus (called Black Widow), but toward males. Ultimately, it is mathematically advantageous to be a female in the game as approximately 75% of the population of the world is male. So what this research has started to point out is a means through which the stereotypical gender roles are portrayed programmatically within popular video games. The persuasive portions of these games, if we take the work of Ian Bogost at its simplest interpretation, is that these games seek to persuade players about the worth of the men and women in society by allowing men to perform actions and women to dictate them. These games

all communicate women as possessing intelligence beyond the capabilities of men but with such physical fragility that there is only two different ways to bring their strength to that of men -- a furious need to rely on technology or magic. Realistically, these representations are the bread and butter of feminism, a manifestation of male privilege in the virtual. However, we see a different side to this through the application of intelligence over men. Is this a manifestation of the work of feminists who wanted to raise women’s participation in STEM related fields? Or, is the constant peril of more intelligent women simply a reassignment of duties based on the need to sexualize content in order to appeal more to men? In either case, women still do not participate in a way that could be described as equal to that of men.

Hammer Woman by ywel on sxc




X-COM: Privilege Unknown Denis Farr


here are many fond memories of X-COM: UFO Defense to go around. Read the internet and you’ll come across many. However, it was also the game that made me think of the color of my skin quite distinctly. Growing up to German parents, I was already accustomed to questioning how a society can other a group of people by wanting them to disappear. As a white boy whose earliest years were around primarily white Germans, I had less experience with people with skin color different than my own except for the times when I lived in the US. Therefore, when I first started playing X-COM, around the time I hit middle school in 1996, I was more familiar


There was a sinking feeling in my gut that I did not know how to voice.

with people from other races, but largely did not think about how I rarely saw them in games. X-COM initially seemed different, in that it gave me a base with scientists and engineers, but also a squad of soldiers who would go out into the field to fight off alien invasions. So I hired soldiers who started with distinctly German names. Guessing what they would look like was not difficult. Nor for the ones with more English names. However, then came the ones who were Japanese, or other foreign (to me) looking names. I could rename them however I wanted, and given my tendency at the time, I renamed them to friends and family. Further, when equipping my little paper dolls, I saw men


and women who were black, Japanese, and even Hispanic. It was great to be able to name my friends after characters who looked somewhat like them, even if only superficially. Then I loaded up into a mission, with my squad at the ready. What I was presented with was an isometric view of blonde-haired white women and men on the mission. There was a sinking feeling in my gut that I did not know how to voice. My friend Ronia, with whom I had a shared history of having lived in Germany, and loving books, was suddenly a woman with white skin and a blonde ponytail instead of being distinctly black? Phillip, with whom I enjoyed talking about videogames, was suddenly a

Guile-a la-Street Fighter II lookalike, instead of a man with black and Korean heritage? As a boy who lived between two countries, often leaving friends behind every few years, I was fairly sure that at the time I knew something of being international (these days I find my experience somewhat narrow).Yet here was a game that let me be in charge of an international organization who hired men and women the world over, who were intended to very clearly not be all white, and then where I would spend the most time with them, on the battlefield, fighting aliens, it was all erased. Every single black, Japanese, and Hispanic character was suddenly white and blonde-

haired. Every last one. I was torn on how to proceed: delete these characters, and not name them after my friends? Was I going to delete any character who wasn’t white in order not to deal with the shock of what was happening? Somehow, given how I was teased by my US peers about being a Nazi, I did not feel at all comfortable erasing these avatars with my friends’ name attached to them -- it sounded all too familiar, and I did not wish to visit the horrors of the Third Reich on my virtual world. Instead, I made up some odd logic about how my organization had already come up with an appearance-altering device in order to make us all look the same to the aliens, as the aliens all did to us. This was


ctrl+alt+defeat used as a method to confuse them. We just so happened to give them a form that was bland and what they would probably be accustomed to due to TV and movies. It still didn’t sit right with me. I enjoyed X-COM and spent many hours playing it. The game’s later levels even included head-to-toe body armor that hid all traces of humanity outside of form from my eyes, so that everyone could be equal, even if I knew the truth behind what was under the suit. Why couldn’t they start off in suits, I wondered. This would slowly bleed into other games I would play around that time, and for years to come. Daggerfall? I rolled a Redguard, just to see if it was possible. The SSI Gold Box series of D&D games? Definitely messed around in the character editor for ages, trying to get a diverse cast of six.Years later, when I played Sims? Definitely had my friend Ronia back in my neighborhood. Then came the announcements for new X-COM games. The first to be announced was said to be set in the 1960s in the US, which immediately had me rolling my eyes. I did not care about the time period being decades before the first game, so much as I worried about the white-washing that could occur from a yearning of a ruined ‘Golden Era’ that would likely focus on white people. Then details were announced.


The man who manages your squad is one Agent Barnes: a man who trailed Martin Luther King Jr for the FBI for years. After failing to find anything incriminating, he is instead asked to create evidence. He refuses. The story of XCOM enters because he is almost kicked out of the FBI, but the invasion happens, and he’s brought on board by the agency. We have a potential story of not just a man who happens to be black, but whose narrative fits in with what was happening at the time. Instead of just focusing on the aliens who are invading Earth, there is a backstory that could potentially not let us forget what is happening in our own society. We fight against aliens because they’re different. It does raise the question of whether or not the aggressor or winner can always be right. Of course, the game has not released yet, so it is difficult to say whether or not this pans out through the play itself. Then again, a game set in the backyard of the US in the 1960s already has the potential to be less white-washing than a game set in the 1990s, across a global scale. And again with X-Com: Enemy Unknown, another remake (less focused on FPS tactics, and more on the classic turnbased combat, real-time management), the marketing has featured men and women of varying races, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Set in modern times, it looks to

again be an international fight, with a diverse set of people from across our globe. Had I not attempted to mimic my friends in the games I was playing while a teenager, I am not sure when I would have noticed the only people featured in the games I played were white. Perhaps when I realized they were all straight, and I wasn’t? Maybe when I would question more openly why my mother played as women whenever a game would allow her, but played in

Why couldn’t they start off in suits, I wondered.

MMOs as men so as to avoid attention? Not so subtly, the original X-COM managed to tell me a lot about my own ignorance and assumptions. I can only hope the remakes do a better job of presenting the diversity that is our global- and country-wide community. Photo by Ingrid Taylar


Why Games Are Tailor-Made for Diversity Feminism and Video Games 101: Shooting Female Enemies Isn’t Icky Facebook Games and the Privileged People Who Oppose Them No More Excuses: “It’s The Middle Ages, Yo!” Characters Done Right -- Aveline 41

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Why Games Are Tailor-Made for Diversity


ne of the things that I’m looking forward to here at The Border House is trying to spot the themes and trends that develop across multiple posts. Looking at issues in isolation is great as an opportunity to really focus on one thing in depth, but I think we stand to learn a lot by backing up a little and taking in the bigger picture. Here’s something that I’ve noticed come up a few times already. We pretty much all seem to agree that we want to see more female characters in games, more minority characters in games, and generally more “people like me” in games (for whatever value of “me” each of us has). What we also agree on is that trying to get this diversity into games isn’t always easy. For instance, if someone wants to make a historically accurate simulation of the Battle of the Somme, then it’s mostly going to contain white men out of the need for verisimilitude. (Or so I understand; history isn’t my strongest subject.) In the long term, I can see that it could be fine for some games to deal exclusively or pre-


dominantly with straight white males, if there are other games dealing mainly with women, homosexuals and people of colour. In the movie world, for instance, Brokeback Mountain is a movie about gay men whereas Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t. This doesn’t mean that Pirates of the Caribbean is a bad movie, nor a homophobic one. It means that they are different movies with different themes and different characters. One of the ways that games are different from other media like film or books is that we don’t have such an enormous corpus of work to compare with and fall back on. If I want to watch a movie about transgender people, I could go and watch Ma Vie en Rose or Boys Don’t Cry or even Hedwig and the Angry Inch, so I don’t feel frustrated at movies as a medium so much when I see yet another movie about people who aren’t like me. Without the large back catalogue, every new game is -- to some extent -- representative of gaming as a whole. How, then, should a game go about including a diverse cast of characters

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without falling victim to tokenism? Every game has a limited number of characters and there’s no way you could fit the whole of human diversity into them, and I don’t think anyone should try to. Compared to books or movies, games have an innate advantage when it comes to covering diversity: everyone’s experience is different in a game. If I watch a movie, it’s going to be the same every single time I watch it. If I pause after 58 minutes, it’s going to show the same picture every time. If my friend watches the same movie and pauses at 58 minutes then that picture will be identical as well. If I play the same game as a friend, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be in the same place after 58 seconds, let alone 58 minutes. We’re used to player characters being different. We can choose different classes, modify our appearances and set our origin stories. We can make decisions as we play the game that

influence how NPCs treat us. My Grey Warden is not the same as your Grey Warden. My Lone Wanderer is not the same as your Lone Wanderer. Why then do we not have the same degree of flexibility over the NPCs we interact with? I played Champions Online for a short while after it was released, and though I quickly lost interest, one of its features intrigued me. As well as customizing your hero’s name, appearance and powers, you also got to do exactly the same thing for the super villain who served as your arch-nemesis. And why not? What good is a super hero without a suitable villain to fight against, and how are people going to become emotionally invested in their character if they end up with a generic foe who doesn’t work with their character at all? The same could be said about any major character in any game. If I get to create my player character to my own specifications, why should I be satisfied with a generic comrade-inarms or a generic love interest?


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The arguments against doing things this way are obvious. It’ a lot harder to create compelling characters and a compelling plot this way. The more options there are, the more dialogue would need to be written and recorded, and so on. From the stand-point of logistics alone, I can understand why games companies wouldn’t want to do this. At least on a small scale, though, I don’t see any reason why this couldn’t be done. Let’s take Dragon Age: Origins as an example. Brinstar posted last month about some of the problems the game still has with sex and gender in spite of it being one of the more progressive games out there on this front. One of the ideas she brought up there was that of making all the potential romance characters be bisexual: However, I was asked to think of a solution, and this is what I thought: if budgetary concerns were the factor, and they could only provide four romantic options, I would have made all of them bisexual. This option would have excluded those who play


characters that are homosexual and those who play characters that are heterosexual to exactly the same degree, without completely excluding those who play characters that are bisexual. She also raised this idea, as suggested to her in a comment: Make one female NPC and one male NPC bisexual (as they did with Leliana and Zevran), then make the other woman and the other man flexible so that (in this case) Morrigan and Alistair can be either heterosexual or homosexual depending on the gender of your player character. What I’m proposing is that the sexuality of all four of the characters could have been flexible, and that the player could get to pick. If I want to have a romance between my female Grey Warden and Morrigan, then why can’t I? But at the same time, if I want my male Grey Warden to have an unrequited love for a straight Alistair then again, why not? Same thing if I want Leliana to be exclusively interested in women, regardless of the gender of my character.

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If I get to create my player character to my own specifications, why should I be satisfied with a generic comrade-in-arms or a generic love interest?

We could go further. Is there any particular reason why Alistair absolutely needs to be a man? Is there any reason why Wynn needs to be white? To my mind, no and no. Why not let us customize our companions to our hearts’ contents to match our customized player characters? Now, I’m explicitly not trying to suggest that this is something that BioWare should have done. There are a lot of good reasons not to do something like this, and if you did want to do it then I suspect you’d have to make that decision very early on in development and make a lot of design decisions in that light. That wasn’t the game that BioWare chose to make, and I don’t have a problem with that.


Scientist, woman, lesbian, transsexual, gamer, geek, feminist, liberal, rationalist, and various other labels. Gamer since the days of the ZX81. Feminist since the time I realised that the label was not synonymous with transphobe. I keep a sporadically-updated personal blog ( about whatever’s on my mind at the time.

What I am trying to suggest though is that there’s no inherent reason why a game like that couldn’t be made, and that if it were then it could have a potentially dazzling scope for diversity.


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Feminism and Video Games 101: Shooting Female Enemies Isn’t Icky


the border house male. I wouldn’t feel right about that. I just wouldn’t. This immediately reminded me of that story of how there were a Harry Reid punching bag and a Nancy Pelosi pinata at CPAC, but only the women were allowed to hit Pelosi and only men were allowed to hit Reid. In both cases, the gender segregation is silly. At CPAC, someone realized there might be a PR problem if news that men were beating up Pelosi in effigy got out, but thought it was a gender issue rather than a violence issue. The punching bag and pinata shouldn’t have existed at all, because advocating violence against your political opponents is wrong, regardless of gender. But in video games, the gender segregation is silly because there’s simply nothing wrong with shooting a female enemy combatant. So where does this ickiness the commenter is talking about come from? In the ensuing comments, Kotaku reader Holly Green gets to the heart of the matter: It’s not hating women to shoot one in a video game.You shoot men in video games, do you hate men? Your hesitancy seems to be based in the notion that women are fragile and need protecting. To which Friedhamster replies, “You got it buddy.” His hesitancy about shooting female enemies in games comes from a sense of chivalry.


almost never read Kotaku, let alone the comments. But I found this comment on the post about the lack of female characters in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 via Stephen Totilo’s Twitter and thought it was worth discussing. The comment, written by Kotaku reader Friedhamster, reads as follows: We fight as men because we’re fighting men. As soon as we fight as females we have to fight females. (Bayonetta and Jeanne.) I have no qualms about dumping round after round into a dude’s face made of pixels. I do have an issue with doing the same to, even, a virtual fe-

Chivalry, as most of our readers likely know, is sexist. It is based, as Holly Green said, on the idea that women are weak and need a man to protect them. Obviously this is extremely condescending and untrue -- women don’t need special protections any more than men do. This logic has been used to actually deny women rights, with the excuse that it is “for their own good”. Friedhamster exposes this line of thought when he compares killing women in a game to how killing children is all but banned in games: how insulting is it to imply that women and children are somehow equal, similarly helpless and in need of protecting? (Answer: extremely insulting!)


the border house Chivalry is also behind the idea that women are somehow purer or better than men; Friedhamster indicates this when he refers to women as “the finer sex”. But that logic is also sexist and limiting; it allows people to hold women to a higher standard of behavior than men, when the reality is we are all flawed human beings. In short, chivalry is just a way of policing women’s behavior under the guise of it being beneficial or a compliment to women. The bottom line is, when women are treated differently simply because they are women -whether by treating them as inferior or putting them on a pedestal -- it’s sexist. As an advocate for better representation of women in games, I believe it’s important to have female “grunts” or “cannon fodder” enemies in games, almost as much as having our Jades and our Commander Shepards. And many games do have female enemies that are treated the same as their male counterparts: BioShock, the Mass Effect games, and Dragon Age, to name a few. Of course, the other side of the coin is that, when female enemies are included, they are often not treated equally as the male enemies, but inappropriately sexualized, playing into a dangerous conflation of sex and violence. While Metal Gear Solid 4 has the awesome, all-female army of supersoldiers known as FROGs, it also has the “Beauty and the Beast” unit, four bosses in the game which are beautiful and scarred women in ultra-high-tech suits that double as weapons. The sexualization of the women in their second forms (wearing only skin-tight suits), while inappropriate, could be interpreted as intentionally disturbing (though I think it would be a stretch), but the secret “photoshoot” mode where the women pose while the player takes pictures cannot be anything but disgustingly exploitative. Kris Ligman at The Hathor Legacy has more (the post spoils MGS4, but the part about the B&B Unit is before any major spoilers). Another example: Grand Theft Auto IV also treats female NPCs differently, because there are female prostitutes that can be hired, then killed to regain the player’s cash. Aside from a single gay male character who can be murdered


Chivalry, as most of our readers likely know, is sexist.

the border house while on a date with him, only female NPCs can be victims of such sexualized violence. Even though the code treats all the NPCs equally when it comes to violence, the result is unequal because of what kinds of NPCs exist. In his God of War III review, Justin McElroy distinguishes between fighting female enemies and killing sexualized female NPCs: More problematic for God of War III is that much of the “collateral damage” I referred to manifests as an unsettling streak of violence against women. Not just violence against women, but against (human) women that have been sexualized and made to appear defenseless.This thread may have been present in the previous entries in the series, but, for me, it was especially notable this time around. I’ve killed countless e-people, in all manner of disturbing ways, so I can’t condemn God of War III too harshly, but there were times when I was nauseated enough by Kratos’ s actions that I was momentarily distracted from having fun. Maybe this is Santa Monica Studio’s intention, but if there is a “lesson” here, I certainly didn’t get it.


Alex is a cis straight asexual white woman from the US. She is a programmer working in the IT field. She has identified as a feminist since 2007, ever since discovering The IRIS Network and other feminist gaming sites. She posts some of her sewing projects and cosplays on her Tumblr (elenielstorm.; you can also find her babbling about sewing and games and random stuff on Twitter (@ elenielstorm).

Here, it’s only female enemies that are portrayed as helpless and sexualized, conflating sex and violence similarly to the gross MGS4 photoshoot mode. If the female enemies were treated the same as the male warriors in the game, it probably wouldn’t have had that same nauseating effect, and likely wouldn’t be sexist. Hopefully someone here can weigh in on this when God of War III comes out. It’s fine to have female enemies even when playing as a male character, but they’d better be treated the same as male enemies. Preventing situations like the one Justin describes requires a more nuanced approach than simply disallowing women to ever serve as enemies in games. We don’t need your chivalry.


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Facebook Games and the Privileged People Who Oppose Them A long article was released yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle about FarmVille game developer Zynga, claiming that the company is one of the largest growing firms in the city. Like any article in any mainstream publication about social games, the comment section quickly turned into an insultfest of people throwing around privilege-filled comments about the kind of people who play Facebook games.

Reading through the comments, I saw the following statements: These people are absolutely pathetic to be wasting all of their time playing these mindless games. (Says people who are ‘wasting time’ commenting on news articles.) Why don’t these people go outside and plant a REAL garden? (Have you personally planted a garden before? It’s not exactly easy, and not everyone can do it.) These people are all social outcasts who cannot communicate with real people outside of their houses. (Although they have plenty of friends on Facebook to play games with?) These people are just addicted and depressed, they hate their lives and social games have filled a void. (Ah yes, no one could possibly be playing these games because they ENJOY it.) People who play games on Facebook are fat and lazy and contribute nothing to society. (Of course you bring out the fatphobia, you can’t possibly forget the fatphobia.) You have got to be a “retard” if you spend one minute playing FarmVille. (Ableist slurs make you


cool, you know.) I’m going to go run my “real business” while these Facebook gamers sit on their asses and collect unemployment checks. (Don’t mind me, I’m just a privileged asshole who owns a business.) These games are unhealthy for the people who play them. (Weee-oooo weeee-ooooh, the health police are here!) These people are mindless consumers. (Here, let me make your decisions for you since you are incapable.) I normally ignore these comments, because I’m one of those people who plays these games. Sure, I’ll completely own up to my personal privilege here -- I make these games for a living so I play them for business purposes as well as a personal hobby, and I get more chance to play them than most people probably do. None of that changes the fact that reading through these comments makes me almost feel like a complete waste of space because I have fun playing Facebook games. Social games are all about accessibility, which is a huge reason that they have become so popular. They are free to get started and players can enjoy them without ever spending a dime if they choose not to. Anyone with an internet connection can enjoy them, compared to a console game that costs $50+ just for the retail box, or a subscription-based MMO that requires a $15/ month fee. These kinds of games open up the world of casual gaming to people who might not be able to afford the luxuries of buying games. Let’s not fool ourselves, video games are freaking

the border house expensive. If you are lucky enough to afford the latest console, you still have to pay out a lot of money for each individual game. Not to mention if you want the DLC or additional content, you can be paying an awful lot for your gaming experience. A wide variety of people play video games, and you know what? Some of them might not leave the house. This can be for a huge variety of reasons -- they could have social anxieties that prevent them from going outside. They might have health reasons for staying indoors. They might not be able to afford to go out and do much. They might be taking care of their kids all day at home and stopping in to play FarmVille now and then while they’re taking a nap. Social game players might not be able to plant a garden because they have a disability that prevents them from doing that. And frankly, who are they to tell someone to go plant a real garden instead of play a game? What I do with my personal gaming time is my business, and why do people I don’t even know care about how I can spend that time? Why is it a “waste” when it is my personal time to spend the way I choose? Why do they assume that I am a mindless person who is blindly consuming products because I am incapable of making decisions for myself? People seem completely unable to grasp the idea that social games are fun. I play these games because I find them enjoyable. I’m fortunate enough that I could be playing my Xbox 360, or another game on my rather beefy computer system, or the Wii, but I choose to play Facebook games because they fit the kind of short gaming sessions that work with my schedule. I’m a Community Manager, and I hear from my players all the time that they appreciate our game because it gives them something to do in their wheelchair that connects them with other people. They make friends through our game and work together on common goals. I’ve had players thank us for making a game that’s affordable on their disability income, or their retirement income. I’ve had people tell me that playing our games helps them get their mind off

of a recent tragedy in their life. I’ve known players who play our games together with their kids, and their whole family comes together around the game every night before bed. The Border House is all about how games are meaningful beyond just mindless drivel and that extends to all categories of gaming – be it hardcore, MMO, casual, social, puzzle, or co-op console shooters. Social games bring people together in meaningful ways on social networks where players already spend time. It is easy to play games on Facebook, and that opens up doors that bring new people into our world of gamers. I am tired of people belittling those who play Facebook games. So you don’t like them. So what? We’ve heard this before about MMOs, about the people who enjoy them being lazy and antisocial. While it’s absolutely fantastic that these commenters don’t have a disability or other issue that prevents them from going outside and shooting people in paintball instead, it’s complete ignorance and lack of understanding about the concept of privilege that makes them blind to the fact that others might not be in the same boat as them. It’s great that they can afford to buy expensive games and pay monthly fees, but other people have to make do with less expendable income to spend on hobbies so that they can feed themselves and their families. I am perfectly fine with people simply not playing Facebook games because they don’t find them fun. Go ahead and insult their game design and call them spammy clickfests. But this incessant need to slam and ridicule social game players for doing something they like to do is just privileged bullshit that really has to stop.


Lead Editor and cofounder of The Border House, feminist, gamer, lover of social media, technology, and virtual worlds. Pansexual, equestrian, dog lover, social game studio director and producer. Email me here ( and follow me on Twitter (@cuppy)!


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No More Excuses: “It’s The Middle Ages, Yo!”


ecently Static Nonsense related their adventure with webcomic author Ryan Sohmer and an ableist comic he wrote for his well read LFG Comic. Static Nonsense submitted a polite letter to Mr. Sohmer and received the following reply from him: Hey bud-I do apreciate the feedback and can understand your feelings. Still, I stand by my work. Not to make offense in any way, but that the world of LFG is set in it’s own one, not ours, where we constantly strive to be politically correct.This is the language they would use in the middle ages, and I try to keep it in that time frame. I hope that made some sense. One can already hear the furious scratching of pencils against bingo sheets, but today we’re


focusing on one fallacy from this letter: the bit about the Middle Ages. Several of us who are veterans of many arguments about problematic nonsense in fantasy video games and other media are quite familiar with this line of reasoning. When I or friends of mine have pointed out Dragon Age’s whiteness as a problem, many of us were immediately met with cries of “but it’s supposed to be like the Middle Ages!” Let me explain why this is patently ridiculous using my usual flawless logic. Or, perhaps more appropriately, using their logic. I have heard this used about World of Warcraft’s setting of Azeroth more than once, and it was indeed this setting to which Sohmer was hearkening when he implored Static Nonsense to stop being so PC and accept that cheers like “Woo! Woo! Woo!” and Lord of the Rings references were commonplace in Earth’s European Middle Ages. Let’s also not forget that warlocks are real, and so are undead, and Elves, and Gnomes, and Trolls… what? Read a history book and open up to the Medieval bit! Arthas will be there, right between Charlemagne and William the Conqueror. Snark aside, there’s nothing wrong with a good LotR reference or a little woo woo in a fantasy comic, or RPG, or novel, or what have you. But do not then insult my intelligence and defend something prejudiced with a veneer of “Uhh, Middle Ages!” If you made an excuse for a joke based on a modern movie, you can easily excise unnecessary bigoted nonsense. This goes for any number of video games as well. Dragon Age’s Ferelden had absolutely no reason to be mostly white. At all. While the setting was inspired by Earth’s Medieval England, it wasn’t the same place. Dragon Age is not a game of historical re-enactment. It is a fantasy game. If we use the world of fantasy to liberate our creativity and add dragons, phantoms, goblins, sorcerers, and unicorns to our stories, what exactly is tying your hands in changing certain elements of social relations? Nothing except yourself.

the border house Quinnae

Quinnae Moongazer, a pizza loving feminist sociologist and amateur slug herder, spends her time writing about feminism, transgender politics, and the vidya. A Latina trans woman in her 20s, she oft runs between worlds in real life and her beloved RPGs.When none of that is going on, she’s either reading, attending class, volunteering for something, or doing work for her university’s women’s rights club. Gaming gets squeezed in whereever possible. Her blog can be found at the link below and her writing has appeared here, on Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku.

of jokes and little else -- something I as a trans woman empathise with quite easily. Nothing inherent to fantasy makes any of that necessary. The highly selective application of “the Middle Ages” excuse is simply another exercise in the denial of one’s own responsibility. “My hands are tied, the setting is supposed to be like the Middle Ages!” This does not wash unless you’re doing a precise historical re-enactment, which no fantasy game, movie, or book has done. Why? Because they aren’t about the Middle Ages. They’re about their own settings and histories. When you create a fantasy world you are not bound to create a world with regressed social relations. If you assert that prejudice is required for verisimilitude in a fantasy world simply because it’s fantasy, that is a prejudiced statement. Period. This is not to say that we can’t have fantasy worlds that have societal prejudice as cultural textures, obviously, but when good writers do this, they effect complex explorations of those prejudices. The authors may well have no problem giving you a good and detailed explanation for why certain prejudices exist in their world and why exploring their impact on the storyline they created is interesting, and what it can teach. They do not blubber about how their setting is like the Middle Ages.

World of Warcraft is an even bigger example of the fallacies inherent to this thinking. Leaving aside all other moral arguments, the simplest way to defeat an Azerothian Medieval-Baiter is to simply send them to Ironforge’s Tinker Town and ask them to explain. Check and mate. The simple reality is that these games are not based on Earth’s European Medieval period save in a highly loose way that is confined to some clothing styles, the use of castles, and certain Arthurian and Tolkienesque tropes. But these things do not a society make. To use fantasy as an excuse for dragons, but not use its power to envision different racial, gender, or sexual relations is highly questionable. That list is hardly an exhaustive one. The example that began this entire discussion was about clichés and stereotypes concerning people with disabilities and how they’re often relegated to being the butt

I grew up loving and admiring fantasy, and a lot of my writing hitherto has explored how the conceptual possibilities opened up by fantasy have been profoundly liberating. It is insulting to me and plenty of other fantasy fans to tell us that some of our favoured settings are based on the Middle Ages and that’s why we have to accept problematic nonsense within them. Look, I’m a geek. I’ve got the D&D manuals to prove it, and I can quote and cite -- page and paragraph -- thousands of little ways that various fantasy settings are not Medieval. Come up with a better argument or be honest about the fact that you just like resorting to cheap jokes and stereotypes. It’d save us all a lot of trouble.


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Characters Done Right -- Aveline


emorable characters have unique motivations, stories, and personalities. Video games often have ensemble casts with the individual party members simply serving the main character’s interests. As a healer, damage dealer, or thief they are there to compliment the gameplay style of the main character. Dragon Age 2 takes an ensemble cast and creates a detailed backstory for each party member. Instead of serving only as aides to the main character, their motivations and goals are independent of the main character. Aveline, a warrior with whom you spend the entire game, is one of these well written characters from Dragon Age 2. This post will include several story spoilers for Aveline from Dragon Age 2.

At the start of the game your main character and their immediate family are fleeing their hometown of Lothering. On this journey out of town is where Hawke encounters Aveline Vallen and her husband Wesley.You quickly learn that she is a warrior that had fought at the battle


of Ostagar. Her portrayal as a female warrior is very positive: Aveline is strong, has fought in many battles in the past, wears full armor (no chain mail bikini and high heels here) and generally feels like a straightforward depiction of a warrior rather than an extreme version of a woman that kicks butt (such as Bayonetta). Shortly after meeting Aveline, the party is attacked by darkspawn and her husband Wesley does not survive for long after that battle. His demise in the storyline could have become a way to make Aveline a potential love interest for the main character Hawke. But luckily that is not the path that Bioware chose for this plot point. The loss of her husband greatly affects Aveline and her mourning of her husband is handled respectfully and honestly. He was not killed to make Aveline available for Hawke, instead his death allows us to see Aveline go through her own emotional journey. It is a way for the player to see a side character deal with grief and then how she moves on with her own life after that loss.

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Upon reaching the city of Kirkwall, Aveline’s story continues to mature. She begins to work for the city guard and is eventually promoted to Captain. Her life and path do not revolve around Hawke’s decisions and desires. As she climbs up the power structure in the guard, Aveline faces insecurities and fears. She worries about the loyalty of her guards but does her best to earn and keep their trust. Witnessing her struggle with the job and her new position as Commander help draw her out as a realistic character. Her insecurities and doubt combined with her competence and care for her job make her character believable. She is a woman in charge of the city guard and her gender adds nuance to her rise to the role of Captain. Part of what makes Aveline interesting (that is also true of the other side characters in Dragon Age 2) is her struggle with aiding Hawke. Aveline accompanies Hawke, but does so cautiously. Because she has her own set of values and beliefs, she sometimes disagree with Hawke. Dragon Age 2 does an amazing job with this personality and belief clashes within the party. Based on decisions made within the game, some of the characters may leave Hawke during the course of the journey. A set of beliefs that is separate from the goals of the main character makes the cast feel human. They are not simply a cheering section for Hawke, but a group with their own motivations and stories. One of the great things about Aveline are her flaws and insecurities. She is a strong warrior,

a leader of the guard in a large city, but she is not fully confident. This is especially true with her and romance. In a storyline during the second act of the game Aveline admits that she is becoming interested in a fellow guard named Donnic. In one set of quests, we see how unsure and awkward Aveline is when flirting. I found it endearing. She was not familiar with dating and was unsure how to act. This unease led to a lot of misunderstandings and uncomfortable moments between her and Donnic. It felt like a very human and real situation. Additionally, when Hawke flirts with Aveline she is oblivious to the advances. She is interested in Donnic; she is not there only for Hawke. She has her own life path and that was more important than the desires of the main character. Unfortunately, when speaking of flaws there is a glaring one with Aveline. Her relationship with another side character in the game, Isabela, is very strained for most of the game. In my first playthrough of the game I played as a rogue. Because of this, I rarely (almost never) had Isabela in my party because she is also a rogue. As such, I missed her interactions with Aveline. However, in my second playthrough as a mage I often went on quests with both Aveline and Isabela in my group. Isabela is a character that is very comfortable with her own sexuality. She discusses sex without shame and flirts very openly with Hawke. Aveline clearly dislikes Isabela early in the game and calls her a whore during some party dialogue. But, as the game progresses there is the hint of a change within their relationship. One exchange goes as follows: Aveline: You’re right. Isabela: About? Aveline: About knowing who you are. I’m the captain of the guard. I’m loyal, strong, and I don’t look too bad naked. Isabela: Exactly. And if I called you a mannish, awkward, ball-crushing do-gooder, you’d say…? Aveline: (Calmly and firmly) Shut up, whore. Isabela: That’s my girl. That discussion makes me think that Isabela does change Aveline’s attitude over time. However, I wish the player could see that change


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more clearly. I want to hear her apologize at least once to Isabela for her earlier name calling. I wanted to see more of that relationship. They were not close friends at the end of the game, but I got the sense that they at least began to understand each other better. An interesting aspect to this negative side of Aveline is that is can be completely missed by the player. As mentioned, on my first playthrough I did not have these two characters interact much at all. In fact, even recruiting Isabela is optional so some players may go through the game and never see any interaction between her and Aveline. As Kris Ligman points out in her article about Isabela, it would be a shame to miss out of this interesting character. One of the numerous things that I appreciate about Aveline’s character is that she looks like a real person. She does not represent an idealized sexual object. She is a freckled, red haired, strong, mature woman. She is attractive without using a thin, young model to create her character. Therefore I find it sad that when looking through PC mods for the game there are several out there whose purpose is to make Aveline more attractive. I find her beautiful as she is in the game and I am glad that Bioware created a character like Aveline. I hope that the existence of such mods does not discourage companies from creating less “perfect� character models. Overall, Aveline is a truly remarkable character because she feels human. She is not a one dimensional figure: she has flaws and insecurities, an independent storyline outside that of the main character, and she grows and changes throughout the course of the game. These things are seen in several of the side companions in Dragon Age 2 and I found their stories completely engrossing. They are what made Dragon Age 2 a wonderful and unique game.



Twitter name: Gunthera1


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The Border House is a blog for gamers. It’s a blog for those who are feminist, queer, disabled, people of color, transgender, poor, gay, lesbian, and others who belong to marginalized groups, as well as allies. Our goal is to bring thoughtful analysis to gaming with a feminist viewpoint and up-to-date news on games, virtual worlds, and social media. 58

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The Border House issue on diversity in video games

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The Border House issue on diversity in video games