Not Serious Games, but Taking Games Seriously: Bioware Steps Up the Diversity?
As educators we talk about Serious Games, And it’s no small secret that I am not a fan of the serios game. Rather than creating small and less engaging games that focus on specific comment why can’t we just use commercial off the shelf games and look for the larger issues in there and use that as a starting point. I, and many others, find COTS games more engaging and the epic nature of the narrative and the gameplay make for a richer interactive experience and an environment more conducive to learning. But that’s just my two cents…
At this year’s GDC developer’s rant Ubisoft Toronto’s managing director, Jade Raymond lamented the fact that most of our current AAA titles are FPSes, but sees the potential in them and games like Assassin’s Creed (which she produced). She discusses her desire to make a game that interrogates
how terribly stacked up against the very poor our systems are… We could imagine some kind of gameplay loop, once jobless, debt and the lack of healthcare spiral out of control… [w]e could have micro-gameplay based on fighting for basic needs, like food and shelter.
Raymond is also a realist and recognizes that she is not going to be able to get big studios, like hers, to make these kinds of things the focus of major IPs. She argues for the opportunity to make these things a bit more prevalent in existing games. She offers some great examples like doing a critique of the prison system and what happens to people as they are educated in and through it in GTA, looking at sexism through Call of Duty games, and using Splinter Cell (which she is currently working on) to look at the ethics of suspect interrogation. I am personally really excited to see if any of her own beliefs about the power of games has any influence on the next Splinter Cell. It’s been a while since I played a SC game, I guess it’s time to pick one up again.
I am a firm believer in the fact that AAA titles have a lot to offer us in terms of cultural critique. That is why this blog, the podcast, and my research agenda exist. I welcome Raymond’s call to be more vigilant about addressing social issues in games and making a concerted effort to do this intentionally, but we still can’t ignore what gets said (un)intentionally. We have to look at what the sexism that comes across in games because of sexism in society and in the games industry says about society and the games industry. We can use them to critique the world around us. In many ways, that may be a much truer critique than than intentional additions of well meaning folks like Raymond (hell and even me).
We all know that Bioware has caught some serious flak in the last few years about the possibility of homosexual protagonists in games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect. I am a fan of the Mass Effect series. I play FemShep as a lesbian, exclusively, but that was my choice. She could be heterosexual or bisexual if I so chose. I liked the potential, but I was still a bit disappointed that it was all still a choice. There weren’t any open (and exclusively) homosexual characters in Mass Effect…until now. (Brief narrative spoilers) This time around we have Lt. Steven Cortez. The buff man of color who handles weapons and aircraft and he has lost a husband to the Reapers. He is not a possible love interest for my FemShep, not because she is a lesbian, but because he doesn’t do girls. Now, if I were to create a ManShep, I’d be in the running.
What is so great about Cortez in this game is that not only does he add depth to the narrative in terms of his own storyline, but he also adds depth to others as well. I found myself liking James Vega a whole lot more after the good natured ribbing (no pun intended) that he gave Cortez about enjoying the show when he was doing pull-ups down in the armory while he clearly still respected him as a soldier. This is saying a lot considering the fact that up until this point Vega was simply more buff than brains and offensive (to me) in that he thought that asking FemShep to “dance” (aka fight) and then bloodying her nose was a acceptable mating ritual. She did get a nickname/endearment (Lola) out of the deal, but… Cortez is proof that queer characters can do so much more than just provide positive characterizations of gay folks in game. They can make their “straight” counterparts so much deeper and more nuanced as well.
But (it seems) that every silver cloud has a dingy lining. Last night when I (FemShep) went to the bridge to choose my next mission my Yeoman, Samantha Traynor, told me that I had better go down and check on Cortez. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I knew what was coming. It was like being in a bad after school special set in a high school and having someone coming to your locker between classes and telling you that you needed to go to the bathroom to check on your friend…you know what awaited you. So I ran down to the armory…cue male voices on tape saying goodbyes as one goes out on a mission that will certainly lead to his death and Cortez…you guessed it crying. Now, don’t get me wrong. Crying is one of the most masculine things a man can do, but what disturbed me most about this scene was that while it was (hopefully) meant to just reinforce the depth of the relationship between Cortez and his husband, Cortez is the first character man or woman who has openly wept about losing loved ones (including other who have lost or are unsure about the fates of spouses and children). Why make him the only/first one? What does that say about what the person who made that narrative choice about Cortez thinks about gay men. I am just hoping that Bioware redeems themselves in the remainder of the game. I’m just saying there better be a whole lot of fucking tears before this thing is over…FemShep can watch vent boy burn every night and not shed a tear? Come on y’all, we can do better than that.