Thursday, 28 January 2010
Why are games still embarrassing me?
A while back on an edition of BBC 2’s ‘The Culture Show’ UK film critic Mark Kermode was asked to look at video games. After a spot of Wii Tennis, he was asked to give his thoughts on the subject. He said “I’ve never played a video game before, and I hope I never do again.” Ok, now that is a snooty thing to say (not to mention pretentious) but it is interesting to look at exactly why somebody like Mark Kermode would want to distance himself from the whole medium so fully. It isn’t because of the violence inherent in modern games and the surrounding moral panic. On his blog he recently posted a video where he likens the media furore over recent violent games to the video nasties coverage of certain horror films, so I don’t think that’s his problem here, because Kermode loves his video nasties. No, I think it has rather more to do with a major image problem games seem to have. Despite the fact that unprecedented numbers of girls and people at both extremes of the age spectrum seem to be playing video games now (mainly thanks to Nintendo) and despite the fact that they rival films as a form of mainstream entertainment (certainly in commercial terms) video games are continually marketed towards fifteen year-old boys. Yes, I know, fifteen year-old boys aren’t supposed to be playing Gears of War 2, it’s an ‘18’ rated game: but in terms of its attitude toward violence, its character designs and its dialogue, Gears of War is at least trying to appeal to the fifteen year-old boy inside of the 18-25 year-old audience. The machismo of it. The blood splatter on the ‘camera’. The great big gun with a chainsaw on the end (above seen in the arms of a "booth babe" from a game expo). There are only two kinds of people you find who seriously love Gears of War (I mean the kind of people who buy the hoodie and the action figures etc): teenage boys and slightly older boys with the personalities of teenage boys. This ties in a little with my previous topic, on games as art, in which I suggested that labelling a game as ‘adult’ is really only a way of saying the game contains violence and sex. These things are not in themselves adult. There isn’t really anything adult in the themes or ideas of Gears of War. It doesn’t demand any great level of intellectual development to understand.
This immaturity in games extends itself to the depiction of female characters. Have you ever used a character creation tool in a fighting game, sports sim or an RPG? If you have ever used one to create a female you’ll know that generally they can’t sport a healthy weight around the hips and the minimum bust size is usually at some kind of post-op proportion. Games like Dead or Alive or Ninja Gaiden (both by the same studio, Team Ninja) exploit their big breasted female characters to the maximum, with the former title boasting customizable amounts of breast jiggle (and providing the basis for a series of spin-off games involving collecting bikini’s and playing beach volleyball, as pictured above). The latter title, in its most recent PS3 incarnation, has the gameplay “function” of tilting the motion sensitive PS3 controller to manually manipulate the onscreen bosoms. But surely this is a joke, right? I mean, it isn’t a major selling point; it’s just a little bit of fun, yeah? Well, no. In Japan the game was trailed on television with an ad exclusively focussed on this groundbreaking feature. Is it any wonder that Mark Kermode doesn’t want anything to do with us game playing sad cases? I feel like blowing off my own head in mock disgust.
Yeah, I know, the truth is he’d hate games whatever they were like, just because he needs to show us how serious he is. This much is probably obvious. But games like these don’t half provide an excuse to pour scorn on games and the people who play them.
It’s not just the hyper- crass examples above that support those who’d happily see games dismissed out of hand as the preserve of those without social skills. Take a recent and critically lauded game like Bayonetta (Edge Magazine gave it 10/10) as an example of a superb, technically polished and well made game with its own burgeoning acne problem. It stars a sultry lady with a pistol extending from her high-heels and a colossal bust, whose magical powers make her very clothes disappear (pictured). Let me make this clear: I’m not being a prude. Of course games can handle sex and feature sexy characters (something that, with varying degrees of success, BioWare have been trying to do for years). But these images seem regressive to me. They seem to be blind to the fact that so many more people are open to playing games now. It seems like video games have a lack of self-confidence, either that or a lack of faith in their audience, who, in the main, are prepared for something genuinely mature by now (I’d like to think).
Granted, Bayonetta has sold really well, and I don’t begrudge it that. By all accounts it’s a decent game. And I know at least two women who love it, so I don’t think it’s upsetting lady-gamers or anything. Nor do I put myself above the likes of Gears of War or Dead or Alive: I have played and enjoyed both titles over the years. But games have come a long way in a short space of time in terms of technology and in terms of the demographics they appeal to. So why are they so behind in terms of their gender politics or just in terms of “good taste”? Why are they still marketed towards this fictional, Nuts-subscribing fifteen year-old boy?
It’s a shame Kermode and his BBC chums didn’t give their Wii a bit more of a chance. After all, with a range of “games” to do with fitness, numeracy, learning a foreign language, as well as the more traditional likes of Mario (Brothers/Galaxy/Kart), Zak and Wiki and Metroid, the Wii is arguably closer than any of its rivals in fulfilling the BBC’s own brief: to inform, educate and entertain. Too bad the critics focus on all the fat, sweary kids salivating over a chainsaw kill on Gears of War, calling somebody a "faggot" online, and generally making the rest of us look bad.