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Getting Touchy Feely With Your Handheld: On Nostalgia and Video Games

Ok, the title is a little provocative, but this post might not be as outrageous as you might think. This week I’ve been re-reading Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One with one of my classes and it has really made me nostalgic for the games of my youth. I spent a lot of time in arcades in the 80s and if you’ve read the book I’ll confess that in 2044 I’ll be about the same age as the crazy cat lady in the stacks, Mrs. Gilmore. Along with reading the book in class we spent a day playing through a lot of the games that are a part of the story. Cline weaves a tale that makes you long for the days of feeding quarters into arcade machines at the corner arcade/ice cream shop. I could almost smell the sweet mixture of the scent of ice cream and smoke wafting in the back door from illicit cigarettes. And as if they knew exactly where my head was this week Sony released Q*Bert Rebooted for the Vita and PS4 for less than the cost of a trip to the arcade (with ice cream and illicit cigarettes 30 years ago). There was only one thing to do: buy it as fast as I could.

I have a strange relationship with my handheld consoles. It really is a nostalgia machine. In the true sense of the word nostalgia, they harken me back to a past that never was. My Nintendo TRA_nosthandhelds have been used almost exclusively for playing old, new, and rebooted versions of platformers I never played as a child because they were brutally hard and I was just bad at them. I much preferred RPGs and fighting games, but somehow just seeing these games in their blocky glory has made me long for a childhood spent in front of a NES or SNES hopping over barrels or swinging a sword at mythical monsters in places where it really was “dangerous to go alone.” But truth be told, I didn’t play my first Zelda game until the 3DS. I bought Skyward Sword for the Wii, but there was something about playing it on the big screen that just didn’t feel right and the same has gone for all of the single player Mario games. These games (and platformers in general) just feel like too much of a personal experience to share with anyone else. And the best way to keep them to myself has been to play them up close and personal (literally like 8 inches away from my face). Playing the games like this allows me the opportunity to (re)live a childhood that never was. On a small screen (albeit smaller than the arcade machine and tv screen that I had in my room) and in a world of my own. Read more »

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Too Good to be True

Last week a witch hunt pervaded the Hearthstone community. Like most witch hunts, it spawned from a baseless accusation: a top Hearthstone player is not who they say they are. This statement, which was little more than a rumor, quickly became accepted as fact as it spread across Hearthstone communities, especially on websites like Reddit and YouTube. Normally a rumor like this might get some buzz, but would probably either be largely ignored or forgotten before long. But this wasn’t normal and the community didn’t move on, because this particular rumor invalidated the fact that a female Hearthstone player just might be better than a lot of the boys.

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Where are the Female Adult Fans of Lego?

Adult Fans of LEGO or AFOL’s represent a very active, creative community of people who love to build with LEGO bricks. I like to spend time browsing through their creations on Flickr and Reddit, and recently I stumbled across this thread on Reddit, promoting Lego artist, Mariann Asanuma, as the “first female LEGO artist.” The description confused me. How are we defining “first” and/or “artist” here? I did a little Googling, and it seems, in this case, “first female artist” refers to the first one to make a living as a LEGO freelancer. (It’s possible she means she was the first female designer employed by LEGO, but on Twitter her bio reads, “I am a former LEGO Master Model Designer and I am now the World’s First and only female Freelance LEGO Artist.”

My intent here is not to take away from Asanuma’s accomplishments; frankly, her work is incredible. But, I wondered what “first female LEGO artist” meant for other women who are also arguably producing quality LEGO art. Last year, I wrote about how Ellen Kooijman’s role as the designer of the LEGO Research Institute set was eclipsed by the narrative surrounding the letter seven-year-old Charlotte wrote to LEGO. That is, many of the blogs and articles credited the letter with persuading LEGO to finally create a set with female scientists, largely ignoring that the set was already approved before the letter was written.

I’ll admit, I haven’t thought much about who the particular designers are, in most cases. So many of the fan-created LEGO builds are amazing, and I usually just get caught up in studying the build. My favorite LEGO-themed art books are Mike Doyle’s, Beautiful LEGO and Beautiful LEGO 2: Dark. I enjoy flipping through the intricate designs, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the LEGO Idea Bird project, which I first saw in Beautiful LEGO, later realized as an actual set. I picked up these books yesterday and flipped to the contributors’ list to see how many women were represented. While it’s difficult to come up with a definitive number, between them Beautiful LEGO and Beautiful LEGO 2: Dark list fewer than a handful of female contributors. In another collection, Extreme Bricks, Sarah Herman showcases a few women who are building with LEGO bricks, including Alice Finch who created the amazing Harry Potter display. But, Herman’s collection is still very much male dominated.

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I know there are more than a handful of female designers, so back to Google I went. In my research, I found this blog showcasing 5 female LEGO designers. I was discouraged, but not surprised to read that one of the designers, LegoMyMamma, “has personally dealt with struggles in the community because of her gender.” I hate to think that the notion of “LEGO is for boys” would bleed into the AFOL community, but I guess it was naïve of me to assume it hadn’t. I also found blogs discussing the need to hide having LEGO as a hobby, mostly because LEGO bricks are really just “toys.” Admittedly, I have seen that same sentiment in some of the more male dominated discussions, but I wondered if the stereotype of “Lego is for boys” makes the feeling stronger in female LEGO fans.

Some might be tempted to argue that the perceived lack of representation actually stems from a lack of interest among women but, of course, there are many female builders creating exciting projects. In addition to the women featured in the above blog post, I found several more interesting projects. For example, this page describes PinkVision: Art Science and Bricks, an exhibit which showcases “45 female artists and scientists who used LEGO bricks to freely explore and interpret the word ‘building.’” I would love to get involved in a project like that. And, in on of my hesitant attempts to get involved a couple of years ago, I went to Brickworld Layfayette, and while it was a pretty male dominated event, I remember talking to female designers. So the women are out there, and they are building incredible LEGO models.

Ultimately, LEGO as a company suffers from a gender problem demonstrated through its Friends sets and lack of female minifies in some of its more traditional sets, which is something we have discussed more than once in this blog and on our podcasts. Its disappointing to see such a male dominance in the AFOL world. But, the women are out there; they are on Flicker and Reddit; They are posting in various LEGO forums. I would like to see their work more equally represented in conventions and mediums such as LEGO-themed art collections.

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No Escape – Rape and Race in Prison Simulation Games

At Sunday’s Oscars, John Legend and Common performed their amazing song, “Glory,” from Selma before ultimately winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. If you haven’t seen the performance yet, it’s a must:

But as powerful as the song is, it’s the acceptance speech (starting at 6:05) that captured my attention on Sunday night.  Amidst the common platitudes and thank yous, John Legend had this to say: “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now because…we know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on.”
This is a question that comes up all the time…why demand video games, books, movies, songs that are more accurate, diverse, or representative? Legend’s answer sums it up…our art—fictional or not—reflects our times. More than that, it shapes it. Video games are only one small piece of that art, but they are more immersive than most other forms. There’s a sense of agency in games, where the player takes an active role in shaping the presented narrative (even if that narrative is ultimately beyond their control). In other words, it’s personal.

Maybe that’s why I like simulation games. So many times, games are a form of escape from the “real” world (which is often an argument for allowing unreal conditions. It’s “only” a game, after all). For that reason, simulations might seem like an odd category, considering that they are most effective when they are realistic…yet the Sims is one of EA’s biggest cash cows, raking in millions of dollars with each new edition, and the successful Rollercoaster Tycoon franchise sparked hundreds of tycoon offshoots, from movie theaters to lemonade stands to game development*. These games are simplified forms of the world, yes, but they are realistic. They offer the chance to create Utopian situations, or to “screw up” in glorious fashions and watch the world burn…without any of the real-world consequences.

Sim games are a mini-obsession of mine. I can lose hours in these games, carefully crafting my worlds and micro-managing the details. They are a control-freak’s dream come true. Add in political mindedness, and that is why I picked up Prison Architect.

Prison Architect is Introversion’s indie prison development simulator. While Introversion is a British development company, the game is remarkably reminiscent of the American penitentiary system. Other than the brief tutorial (and the occasional calls from the CEO if you manage to go bankrupt), there is no dialogue in the game. You are given God-like status, complete with a bird’s-eye view of your prison as you shape it and your prisoners’ day-to-day lives.
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Girlcraft, the Kickstarter that stalled (and thank goodness)

Recently, one of the other women on the NYMGamer team shared a link to a Kickstarter for “Girlcraft,” a proposal for a Minecraft knockoff branded for girls. Same ideas, just pink and purple and full of fairies and rainbows. My heart sank as I read the description, but it didn’t matter in the end — the attempt is like a master class in what not to do on Kickstarter: no real plan, no details, and no need for the project. After all, there are plenty of mods that allow players to turn Minecraft into anything they’d like. There are already fairies galore (and mods branded Girlcraft!), and players don’t even have to resort to a lesser game to get there.

But that doesn’t mean the idea of giving girls their own branded entry point is going to go away simply because this particular Kickstarter is a nonstarter. Thanks to Lego Friends, Nerf Rebelle, and even products like GoldieBlox, girls get versions of toys, activities, and ideas just for them. This is good, right? This is how we’ll break down those lines between gendered toys and get girls to slowly move into boy-occupied spaces, right? Or instead, by handing girls special toys, are we simply telling them to stay separate? Why venture past “your” aisles in the toy store when you have weapons just for you right here? Read more »

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Sunday Morning Mama Musings: Girls and STEM

I love weekends, but not because I get to hangout out later or sleep longer in the mornings because there is none of that when you have young children. I love weekends because we can cheat on bedtime a little and do more of the stuff that gets cut short with dinner prep, homework, and general school night madness. Last night as Pea and I snuggled up in bed listening to a Geronimo Stilton audiobook and doing some kiddie coding I got sad for just a second.

boygirlmathNow I know that it makes no sense to get sad in this perfect moment, but let me explain. Pea is six and right now she loves math and thinks that computers and video games are the coolest things on the planet. Rather than aspiring to be a cheerleader, model, or some such madness that is pushed upon young girls by society, she says she wants to be the next “Dr. B.” she wants to teach people how to make video games and there’s no doubt in my mind that she can do it. So here is where the sadness comes in. Recently, as researchers and educators have started to try to figure out why there are so few women in the STEM disciplines they have found that while girls generally out score boys in math and science until the 5th grade after that something changes. If 66% of 4th grade girls self report that they like science, doesn’t it seem odd that only 18% of girls actually pursue STEM majors like engineering in college. And it’s not the intellect of girls or boys, but rather the ways that they are treated by teachers and parents and how that treatment causes them to think about their own aptitude. One study suggests that since girls see their intelligence as a fixed thing while boys see theirs as something that they have to work at, so as things get more difficult girls are more likely to just give up when something does not come easily to them and boys are more likely to work at it.  Read more »

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Episode 95: Strange Choices: Discussion of Life is Strange (Episode One)

Episode 95: Strange Choices: Discussion of Life is Strange (Episode One)  (“Save As” to download or head over to iTunes to subscribe)

This week we talk about the first installment of DontNod’s episode game, Life is Strange. Spoiler alert, we talk about the entire episode.

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Musings of a Gamer

Somebody once told me that if I had put as much effort into my school work as I did with videogames, I would have been a straight A student. I shrugged my teenage shoulders and rolled my teenage eyes but deep down that comment hurt. I knew I was smart but I struggled in school because of attention deficit disorder and a learning disability. I preferred to lose myself in a gripping book or videogame because that’s where I found meaning. What’s so criminal about that? I was still learning. A visual medium just better suited a brain like mine.

indexVideogames are often viewed as fluff entertainment, a pointless hobby. This perspective amplifies the idea that games rot the brain. Personally, games brought out the best in me because they compelled me to think on a much deeper level. They taught me how to problem solve, how to work on a team, how to think creatively, and so on. A Link to the Past, the first game I ever finished, challenged my six-year-old brain with all of its puzzles and hidden treasures. I didn’t just sit and watch, I participated. Games held my attention because of their interactive nature. I needed a learning experience in order to retain information. How can video games rot the brain if they’re constantly stimulating it?  Read more »

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Strangely Privileged: The Blackness Problem with Gamers

My post for today was going to be specifically about Evan Narcisse’s article that talked about video games’ blackness problem, but as I sit down to write I find that it is only going to be tangentially connected.

Video games do have a blackness problem…and so do video game players. So let me explain. Narcisse is right that Black folks in video games are still stereotypically portrayed as something out of bad blaxploitation films. I won’t go into this too much right here because I have talked about it on NYMG before, so go back and check out my posts on Saint’s Row, Grand Theft Auto, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution (among others). It doesn’t go away and sadly, it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

tylermilesYesterday Pea and I had the treat of her being my assistant at work (thanks to subzero temperatures). As we walked around my games narratives class watching people play games and chatting about connections between what they were playing and the books that we are reading for class, we came upon a group of folks playing Indigo Prophecy. We talked about the representation of one of the game’s three protagonists, Tyler Miles, a Black man who dresses like a bad throwback from the 70s and even has what appears to be black velvet paintings on the walls of his apartment (the original game was released in 2005 and this version was the newly remastered 2015 version). We kind of summed it up as “clearly, game designers think that Black folks are stuck in the 70s” (at best) and the voice of reason came from Pea who looked at us, thoroughly confused, and said “Mama, you’re Black and you’re not stuck in the 70s!”. We all laughed, adding to her confusion, but it was one of those laugh to keep from crying moments. Pea missed the sarcasm, but drove home a point for me. People ask me all the time why I keep writing about and researching race and gender in video games and the video game industry. Why would anyone want to work in an area that is so filled with racism, sexism, homophobia, and misogyny. And yesterday really summed it up for me. My daughter, my kiddo, my baby loves to play video games and will most likely be a gamer for many years to come. Why should she have to look at shoddy representations of women, queer folks, and people of color? Why should she have to see something portrayed that is not only offensive, but completely inaccurate? Why should Tyler be dressed like a pimp on casual Friday in 2005 or 2015?  Read more »

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The “Sexy” Dilemma

In an interview published last week on Game Informer, Rhianna Pratchett, writer for the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider and the upcoming game Rise of the Tomb Raider, was questioned about how Lara Croft’s long history of overt over-sexualization and persistent objectification was handled with these latest reboots. For most of her pixelated life, Lara was, as Game Informer described, “a sexed up caricature of femininity.” This isn’t to say that she wasn’t an admirable character in other aspects or that she had no other remarkable personality traits, but it’s hard to argue that was was very much created with the male gaze and female sexuality in mind. Normally I might have just read over Pratchett’s answer to fulfill my own curiosity, but the way the question was worded sparked a bit of internal debate within myself. Rather than merely asking about how Lara is being presented in these most recent reboots, Game Informer asked if Pratchett thought if Lara could be sexy, given her “rocky” history with the trait. Pratchett responding with the following:

“I personally don’t have an issue with female characters being sexy. However, in the past the industry has suffered from sexy merely being used as a solo personality trait. Likewise, the definition of what constitutes sexy has been very narrow and frequently meant overly sexualized, which was off-putting for some. We definitely need more diversity in this area and to create more characters who’re sexy because they’re smart, funny, thoughtful, loyal, textured and flawed people, on top of whatever they may look like. I still think Lara’s sexy. She’s beautiful, fierce, empathetic, determined and smart – which arguably she was before. But now she’s just not sexualized. I think that decision has definitely helped us reach new audiences.”

Pratchett raises a good point: too often “sexiness,” especially for women, is equated solely with physical attractiveness. Even more specifically, “sexiness” – especially in video games and other forms of popular media, but still sadly true in the “real world” as well – becomes synonymous with dressing and looking in a way that is pleasing to and aligns with the male gaze. It becomes synonymous with inappropriate and overly revealing outfits for female characters, female character designs that conform to Western beauty ideals, and a female character’s first revealed or primary character trait being her physical attractiveness rather than their ambition, their strength, or any other positive personality traits. However, more than this, Game Informer’s question and Pratchett’s response that followed made me really wonder if a female character can still be physically “sexy”  but still remain her status as a positive representation of women or well-developed character? Are these things mutually exclusive?

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