Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Comics: Gamer Comics

Since the podcast was canceled this week and I had a rant I wanted to get out, I'll vent here.

Today we were suppose to review a comic called "GG-Guys". Don't ask what "GG" stands for I couldn't find out. :(
I won't give my full review for this yet but here's what I first thought after reading through the archives: "Another one?"

Yes. Another clone of the ever popular formula of "gamer comics" as set forth by the Gamer Comic Gods of Penny Arcade.
The formula can be expressed in colorful/non-work-safe language here: Zero Punctuation.

In My words, which will be work safe here is what the formula is.
Two guys, usually roommates living out their gaming fantasies. Usually there is one angry girl character to represent the entire female demographic of gamers. (insert many frownie faces).
She will also be one of their girlfriends.

Two Male-Dominant Industries in One
Comics and the Game industry are two largely male-dominant industries now. So I guess that makes sense to have two male characters as the stars right? (I'm just noting something ironic in that).

And what I notice is that these two industries are falling into this vicious cycle of making more of the "same thing". More first person shooters and more two guys playing video games living out the dream.

It's very rare you find a GEM in the mix. But you can find them.
My problem though is the "sameness" of the genre. (can it be called a genre if they're all the same?)
Stray from the path a bit. I haven't found a single comic where they change up the personalities of the characters even.
The girl is ALWAYS angry. She's either a gamer or completely inept OR a booth babe. (It's like feminism never happened.)

Maybe that's just the way we always come off when females encounter chauvinism found in video game related culture. I feel angry sometimes. Sometimes I play games when I'm angry to let off steam. Sometimes the game makes me angry. And sometimes reading research makes me angry. But mostly the difficulty I'm having trying to get a foot in the door in this industry makes me angry.

Some Changes
F@nboy$ is one of those rare webcomics where sometimes the comic gag is not about the games at all, but the relationships between all the characters. Granted it starts out a VERY cliche formula, but the artist has matured in both style and humor. The characters seemed like self insertion but end up being representations of the various console fans. What is unique is the female character is the Xbox fan. She is just as in-touch with the gaming culture as the boys and even lives out her own in-game fantasies. Then she started dating the Nintendo fanboy and the story tangents.

Gold stars for good character development, non-game related comics, and jokes about working at a game store.

My Idea
I was actually so put off by the comic we were reviewing that I was typing out my thoughts as to what I would do if I made a gamer comic.
I'm sure there are some girl-gamer comics out there in the web-comic world. I just haven't found them yet.

Going with the classic formula, the comic would be self-insertion. And instead of living out my gaming fantasies (although that may become a part of it) it'll be about the gender research I did, trying to break into the industry and all the demographics that the game industry is failing to reach.
I may also add my favorite mascots who happen to be guys but they're mostly non-gamers. And certainly outside the demographic...because one is an elf.

So even more of the classic formula would be the two guys and one girl syndrome but because that's a trope of the genre I'll use it.

And to top it all off I'd use sock puppets instead of drawings. :)

I get really sad when I don't get this out on podcast day.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Nostalgia Game Design: Surprise! You're a Girl!

This entry is inspired by the research I was reviewing on InvestiGaming. This time I was filtering through the "avatars" tag and summarizing the research and finding highlights. Since all the research is specifically about gender studies and gaming you can be sure there was LOTS to be said about female avatars. The one that I reflected on the most was an article about Samus Aran from the Metroid Series. So on we go.

Back to the Past
Personally, I have never played the Metroid series, but I know it well enough from videos, research and reviews from other players. And mostly from a presentation someone gave in a college class about gender and minorities in film and television...but branched off into video games. (Which was a LANDMINE).

At that point in time, I had learned that Samus Aran was female through Super Smash Brothers where she is a fighter character. (I read her bio which described her as female.) But I had no clue about the series until this presentation. The gentleman said that (and research confirms) that when the series first came out it was a SHOCKER to all. The pixel rendition of a space suit is what the player was shown throughout the whole game. It was not until the end when the space helmet came off did the player come face to face with a pixel head with lucious 80s hair! WHAT!? I WAS A GIRL THE WHOLE TIME? (Correction...you were a woman the whole time.)

It was that shock that gave the Metroid game a spot in the Hallows of Gaming history. Was this a postive role model for female players? A hero who you assumed was male was actually female? Unheard of!? However, it becomes somewhat clear that Samus was not for women but for men. As the presenter told us that if you beat the game in an hour or less, you were rewarded with human Samus in a pixel bikini. Okay hardly anything to shreik about visually but conceptually it's kind of a bummer.

Samus and Me
As I mentioned before I too was surprised by Samus' female identity. Although it was through Smash Brothers. You did not get any reveals in that game, she remained in her suit the whole time. How was I to know? And then looking at the suit you would not guess that it was a female inside.

That changed of course with Smash Brother's Brawl for the Wii and the advent of Zero Suit Samus. The armor comes off again this time to reveal a blue cat-suit and a VERY shapely form. To say the least I was not sure if I was pleased or displeased with this. On one hand, it's clearly eye-candy for the male player and on the other, it IS the only female character in the game that is NOT wearing a dress. AND on the other hand, gender role inforcement in Japan is much stronger I think than here...however...Japan does make more gender friendly games that are equally enjoyed by boys and girls. (Another rant when I research the subject in greater detail.)

Playing a Female Character
Back in the early days of Metroid, it was revolutionary to play a female character in an action-shooter game. And the series continues to flourish with mostly male players. Weird right? Much of the research I show reaffirms that female players prefer to play female characters if such an option is given to them. (However, if game play depends on the gender of the avatar female players try to pick the avatar that is more adventageous.)

The vicious cycle continues as female protagonists are rare in console games of nearly ALL genres. I'm not kidding about this either. It's just NOT getting any better!
If you want numbers I've got some from 2001 - 2008. The balance remains, ALMOST consistantly with male only characters making up 80-some % and females only 12%.
You are more likely to be able to play a non-human or animal character than playing a female human character. WOW. Seriously WOW.

Statistics of course are just numbers. The interpretation is up to the writer. Which is why I always take statistics with a grain of salt. This is what the number IS but what it MEANS is influenced by the writer.
The Divinch Tapes
Video Game Content Analysis
Children Now!
(Just to prove I do my homework...sometimes).

The Action Genre and the Female Protagonist
Some of the articles I read were of course about Lara Croft. But surprisingly there wasn't too much literature on her. It's hard to place her. Because some studies show that when female players choose an avatar to represent them in a game they choose something that is hyper-sexualized or "attractive" to them. Which makes sense to me. I'd rather play an ideal in a fantasy game.
But the thing is that female players don't like to see that hyper-sexuality be objectified or obviously there to satisfy male-gaze. Lara Croft has this problem of not only being a hugely disproportionate design (which was different than the original design...which I got to see. And wow...they should have used it. She was very attractive and wore a cool yet sexy outfit. WHY? WHY DID WE GET BOOBZILLA?), but the cinematic male-gaze and improper outfits. Hot pants, wetsuits that glisten, erotic stretches, and camera angles that get the most beautiful shot of her figure.

At the same time though (so much happens at the same time) Lara is in a traditional male environment and conquering it like Indiana Jones. She needs no male companion to rescue her and her sexuality is never brought up. As far as I know. This is mostly literature review which I admit would be a stronger case if I had played the game for myself.

But there's MY problem. I'd never want to play that game. First of all the box art just have these giant chesticles in my face and a "come hither" expression. BUY ME I'M A SEX TOY!
That's the message I get. Not to mention a lot of negative reviews that surround poor Lara.

But quite recently...very recently...I mean at the past GDC, I found a "booth-babe" statue of the Lara for the newest installment for the series. I was walking around with a male friend and exclaimed, "WOW, she looks normal! I really appreciate that!"

But are there OTHER female protagonists besides Lara in this genre? Again, I only know of those I've read about because I clearly can't find these games at my local Gamestop or read about them in my Game Review Magazines...which I consider trash. (A rant for another day). Anyway, these games were "Primal" which I guess looked cool and Buffy the Vampire Slayer which I feel no connection to.

What Are You Getting At In This Post Anyway?
Ah the point probably would be good to get to. There's lots of literature about negative stereotypes of the female figure throughout ALL visual media. And no matter how much we roar about it, little has changed. Not to bash any guys out there but seriously, who are these chauvanists? Clearly they must be a minority because I haven't really met one! Have I really just been that lucky?

I look at the games I do play most often and a lot of them are actually action-adventure or RPG games. And for most of them, I don't mind the male avatar...as long as I find him attractive. And here is where I wish game developers would get some ideas.
We need more Prince of Persia and the pants of time. (AKA handsome male strippers!)
I kid...sorta. Really though, someone not super muscular, lean and athletic is WAY appealing for me as a female. I think real life athletics are smoking hot. That's part of the reason I enjoy watching sports. (It's partly why my mother watches too.)
Same with my female characters. Someone lean and athletic is very attractive to both male and female audiences. And for land's sake wearing something SENSIBLE!
Again my favorite bit of research: Gender Aspects on Computer Game Avatars.
Male and Female participants prefered avatars that were modestly dressed!!

Please, if someone you know and love works in character design for a game company, let them know that both men and women want a positive role model for their female protagonist. Like Samus Aran or Chris from Suikoden 3.

Lastly, womengamers.com reviews their top-ten favorite female characters. Check it out!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Nostalgia Game Design: Point and Click Adventures

I went to a conference this past weekend for Michigan Women in Computing (MICWIC). And while I was the only sort of game related person there, I had great fun discussing games with some peers and many older women. (And I gave a presentation on gender and gaming).
One of the games that came up in our discussion was "Zork" which I have only read about. (If you think about that it's kind of a pun.) It was a text-based adventure game where you would type "Go North" and a new description of a dungeon room showed up. It was kind of like navigating a maze through text. Kind of like a choose your own adventure. So I'm going to reflect a bit about what these text-based adventures evolved into and what has become of them today.

Literacy Required to Play
Last blog I spoke a bit about MUDs which were online text-based worlds similar to the game Zork. Except there was no game...just socializing and roleplaying. A text-base game is good at a few things.
1) A sort of introduction to coding. Creating your own text based adventure is pretty simple! My father claims they used to do that on computers...which in his day were made of rocks.
2) A rich ground for narrative that the reader felt a part of.
3) The limitless power of the greatest "graphic engine" human imagination.

Really, I think it's good practice to think about a text based game. And if you are willing to learn a simple coding language, to make one! (After all, a good game is a good game regardless.) Consider it one of the simplest forms of digital gaming and a great art form for a writer.
Some times I feel that gamers get too wrapped up in graphics (or game creators). Which is sad coming from someone who considers themself an artist.

Much like my comparison of MUDs to MMOGs, text-based games have the same benefits and pitfalls. The game will require lots of reading and if you don't read you lose the full experience.

Remember that text-base games were not just about navigation or fighting monsters, but solving unseen puzzles and riddles. Definitely a game that engages the mind!

Text-Base...in Technicolor?
What came next? When text and coding were put into the background or in Word Bubbles we got, The Point and Click Adventure Games. Again these were games with a story to tell but had more visual appeal. Sort of like reading a comic as opposed to a book.
Usually done on a static 2D background with maybe some character animations, these were games where you move your charcter within a scene by clicking on "hotspots" on the screen.
Lots of times you would solve puzzles by collecting items or playing a mini-game (similar to the text based game).

I've only played a few of these. They were very popular in the early 90s. One that I recently downloaded was based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld. Being a fan of the books the game was...incredibly hard even for a fan who might get the "inside logic" of the Discworld. Anyway, there were 2 Discworld games. The first one used pixelized graphics which is what most of the adventure games I remember had. The second one (which apparently was on the PS1) use CEL ANIMATION and VOICE ACTING! :O I haven't heard the voice acting because I played the MS-DOS version. Yeah, so Point and Click adventures could get very artistic.

Most Point and Clicks that I remember were "edutainment" games, such as Eagle Eye Mysteries (that taught logic). And some "fluff" games like Scooter's Magic castle where all you did was interact with the castle's rooms and match colors. (For preschool it was probably educational).

There were some graphical translations of text-base games in the early Ultima Series. You would have all the same commands like "Go North" that you would have to type but you got some graphics along with it. Nice!

Point and Click Today?
You might think that consoles like the Nintendo DS with the "touch screen" or iPhone that there would still be some point and click adventures. And you know what...there ARE a few on THAT system. Just like before you point and "tap" to move to different rooms and interact with hotspots, collect items, solve puzzles and talk to people. "Hotel Dusk" is a good example. They call this genre "interactive novels" and they're not as popular in the U.S.A. Which is a shame because I really think that the "literary games" are a very rich experience. It's like playing a book. There's a predetermined ending, just like a book, but you play despite the ending. Because you're not going through the same challenging frustrations as a 3D shooter game or platformer. Where your skill in hand-eye coordination needs some sort of reward. The reward in an adventure game is getting to the end of the story. And if the story was good, you can replay it! It's like a book! Or rather it's like a COMIC and that's awesome.

Some final thoughts, if you're stuck in a rut and trying to figure out "how can I make a game if I don't have art?" or "I'm not very good at programming". A text-based game may be a way to get some game making/designing experience! If you're not good at writing than well...that's a very important skill and you will do well to learn it.