Games

When Adult Men Sing the Stories of Teenage Girls

When Adult Men Sing the Stories of Teenage Girls

I walked to high school with the music of my favorite male singers sharing their loneliness and heartbreak through my earbuds. I trusted these singers—usually men—with my feelings, screamed my heart out at their concerts and allowed them to console me when I locked myself in my room. I would always be a stranger to them, but they influenced me.

Playing Life is Strange, the latest game by DontNod Entertainment about a teenage girl with the power to reverse time, was like going back in time to when I was their age.

Just Guys Being Dudes: Male Intimacy

"What's better than this: guys being dudes."

Men in popular culture are confined to a few specific roles: the strong, powerful hero, the possibly nerdy underdog, the more effeminate-looking villain, or the father figure. Sometimes there's some overlap, such as the father or husband who is motivated to save his wife or daughter—or to enact revenge after she's died, yet another reoccurring trope. In isolation, these character types are not bad, but they're certainly boring because of their overuse. But what lurks behind these masculine heroes and less masculine villains or comic relief characters is a fear of intimacy.

When you look at the more well-known male icons (Superman, Batman, James Bond, most of the action heroes played by Bruce Willis, etc.), you see muscles, grimaced faces, and usually a lack of emotion beyond anger. Video games often use violence as a motivator for the plot because that's easy to design around to compel a player forward, but that's also coupled with male dominance and power. We're seeing more complex stories that give depth to male characters, but there's still a lack of intimacy between male characters.

I'll be talking about Tales of Zestiria primarily further on for this article, but first I want to talk about a similar game called Final Fantasy XV. Like Tales of ZestiriaFFXV is a game multiple characters who are on a journey or quest together. FFXV departs from the norm in its series by having a cast of playable characters who are all male. They're basically on a roadtrip together, spending cozy nights together in a tent. As Alexa Ray Corriea writes at Gamespot, these guys act with each other with a sense of comfort, like they can behave intimately in a way that guys might only act around their closest friends. They're not "bro-ing" it up in a "Hey, I love you, bro, but no homo!" way. This sort of closeness stems from a fear of homosexuality and clings to the hypermasculine ideal that stresses physical strength over emotional openness. What we know about FFXV's male intimacy is confined to what people have seen in the demo because the game is still in development. While I'm optimistic, I'm also hesitant about the intimacy that will be portrayed in the game considering how the game sexualizes the first female character they encounter in the demo.

Sorey and Mikleo act in a way that makes us believe they’re comfortable with each other.

Tales of Zestiria also exhibits some sexism in character writing, but I can say it goes all in on a male intimacy that is believable and heartwarming. Sorey and Mikleo grew up together since they were babies, and they're cared about each other for as long as they can remember. They've been exploring together all that time, going on adventures as kids and now as teenagers. They both developed an interest in archeology. They bicker. They stand closer to each other. They rest their hands on each other. They reassure each other with physical touches. They're completely at ease with each other because they trust each other unconditionally. 

In Tales of Zestiria, Sorey can fuse with the spirits who have entered a contract with him as the Shepard. The game never explains the details of this fusion to the extent that Cartoon Network's TV show Steven Universe does with its fusion, in which characters can fuse together to become someone stronger. Steven Universe depicts fusion as something inherently personal; in order to keep a fusion stable, characters have to be in sync with each other. At least in Sorey and Mikleo's case, I see their fusion working the same way because they love each other and know what the other person is going to do just as that person decides to do it. Because Sorey is an empathetic person, I can see fusion overall in Zestiria functioning similarly to that of Steven Universe

Before Sorey and Mikleo can fuse together, Mikleo has to become a Sub Lord to Sorey. Sorey and Mikleo get in what is certainly not their first fight, but it's the first one we see, and they get into this fight because of how much they value each other. Sorey doesn't want Mikleo to enter that contract because he wants Mikleo to follow his own dreams rather than feel compelled to follow Sorey's. Mikleo is offended that Sorey is pushing him away and doesn't want him to help. After all, Mikleo wants the same thing that Sorey does: save the world, and explore the world. Prime Lord Lailah asks Mikleo to give Sorey his true name, a name that few know in the ancient language, and Mikleo replies that Sorey already knows what it is. And once the two make up, they have a tickle fight.

Just guys being dudes.

Just guys being dudes.

Sorey and Mikleo act in a way that makes us believe they're comfortable with each other. They rest their hands on each other. They stare at the sky together. And their relationship is always treated as the most important one in the narrative. Traditionally in Tales games, there's a male hero and his female companion who follows him and supports him (e.g. Lloyd and Colette in Tales of Symphonia, Cless and Mint in Tales of Phantasia). While there have been close male friendships in the series before (primarily Yuri and Flynn in Tales of Vesperia), these have always been presented within the game (not talking about fanfiction) as platonic. Sorey and Mikleo never have that Big Kiss Moment, but that's hardly a thing in the Tales series to begin with, and you don't need that to know they are each other's significant others, whether that's sexual or not. Their relationship as a human and a spirit who get along is seen as an ideal for the world, where humans and spirits have grown separated from one another. The people around Sorey and Mikleo hope to see more relationships like theirs between humans and spirits around the world.

Zaveid is interested in looking at babes. Sorey is only interested in looking at Mikleo.

Zaveid is interested in looking at babes. Sorey is only interested in looking at Mikleo.

Truly, it's noteworthy that this relationship is so important in a wider context because relationships like these are rare in video games, especially. However, it goes beyond male intimacy being seen as rare; we need to change the perception that men can't have close relationships where they hug each other tightly or hold hands—things that women do together without being portrayed as romantic. And yet, we also need more happy stories about people who are gay! In the last TV show you watched, how many characters were gay? Did they survive to the end of the story? Are they happy? I challenge all of you to reflect on the last TV show you watched, the last movie you watched, and the last game you played (one with a narrative) on how it represents sexuality and intimacy between the same gender. It won't be until we recognize the problems in our media that we start to make changes, and if the media we consume shows healthy relationships between friends and partners, then maybe that'll persuade some people to stop clinging to an outdated and unhealthy ideal of emotional stagnation in men.


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Consent and Games: Creating an Interactive Experience with the Player in Mind

From games on the playground to structured roleplaying experiences, consent is something players can give or take away. As an assistant teacher in an after school program, I tried to subtly give kids pointers on how to communicate their desires to be included or excluded from a game. In an aggressive tagging game where they chased each other and grabbed each other (something I found alarming at first), they said “safe word” whenever they were uncomfortable with the game and needed to stop. From what I saw, they took “safe word” seriously and backed off when somebody needed to take a break.

That’s a start.

In LARPs (live-action role plays, or a game in which you are physically playing a character and interacting with other players in character), the gamemasters (called GMs) typically solicit desired experiences from players who have indicated interest in playing. Players may indicate whether they prefer puzzles or combat, complex storylines or relaxed roles, characters who will lie through their teeth or characters who are exactly who they appear to be, etc. This helps the GMs find the right roles for players to fill. In my first (and only so far) LARPing experience, I made sure to communicate how much I did not want to be doing several little quests to do build an item nor did I want a tricky character to play. So, I was assigned a character who was pretty straightforward but had many, many goals. I was pretty satisfied the whole weekend.

Sometimes LARPs involve situations that are potentially triggering experiences for players if they don’t know what content will be addressed. Games about loss, suicide, or trauma hit close to home for some people, and when you have no warning, the subject matter can be deeply unsettling. While it’s common courtesy for game designers or previous players not to spoil the content of the game, people’s mental health is always more important than a spoiler. Hell, our culture cares way more about spoilers than it does about trigger warnings (see outcry over Star Wars spoilers and compare that to the response to people asking for trigger warnings in media). If sensitive material is a part of your game, it is your responsibility to explain what that means players will be dealing with. This doesn’t have to go into details; just a simple content warning before players sign up that the game will address ____ themes will suffice. GMs don’t want players needing to suddenly leave a game because of a bad experience that could have been averted, and players don’t want to get into a subject they would rather avoid for whatever reason.

From xoJane: (because this is nice and succinct)

“Trigger warnings were originally implemented with a very specific and very clear function: to tag content that contained traumatic material for the benefit of people who experience panic attacks, PTSD flashbacks, and other responses to such material …
Trigger warnings would provide people who know they experience intense physiological and psychological responses to certain known stimuli — triggers — with a, well, warning. Which would allow them to prepare for something that might be traumatic.”

Trigger warnings aren’t a be-all, end-all solution, but they can help reduce harm. Content warnings are much broader, but they’re also good to implement. This is all about transparency and providing people (and players in game settings) with the information they need to decide whether that experience is something they want to sit through. For example, I like to know when a video game or a LARP is going to contain sexism. A content warning might let me know that the media contains sexism, and a trigger warning might let me know something more specific, such as a male character sexually assaulting a female character. There are some days I’m fine with consuming media about sexism, and there are other days when I’m too exhausted by sexism in daily life to want to experience it in a game setting. Either way, I appreciate the information.

Now, getting back to consent — without those warnings in the case of LARPs not suitable for everyone, I can’t be expected to consent to a potentially traumatic or disturbing scene if I don’t know it’s coming.

Even for milder things, consent can be given or taken away. Sometimes games will have characters who are in a relationship played by people who are not dating; maybe they didn't even know each other beforehand. Your comfort level is far more important than playing up the role. It's important to discuss this before the LARP starts, but you should also establish when you are in and out of character so that it's obvious when you're telling another player to stop it's you the player saying that. The easiest and most common way I've seen of communicating out of character is the placement of the player's hand over their nametag. 

It's hard to quit a LARP when you've already begun. There's an implicit pressure to be a well-behaved player or not to hinder the game for anyone else. After all, playing in a LARP is like participating in an illusion with many other people. You're all physically in a classroom or a hall, but you've all agreed to pretend you're in a specific setting, acting as someone who is not you. Essentially, everyone is acting but sort of doing it improv. LARPs function because players agree they enter "the magic circle," a place separate from our reality with different rules. However, it is unreasonable to expect people to completely shed what they bring along with them (e.g. their experiences and identity) to the game. That's why proper communication is important to distinguish when you're playing along and when you are not. Before signing up for a character, think about what you want and don't want out of the game so that you're prepared to break the illusion when your safety is threatened. The game organizers should also take care to be someone players can trust so that they can approach an authority who will take their concerns seriously.

The point is everyone, from players to designers to GMs, wants to participate in a game they’ll enjoy. Crafting a space where players can discuss or exit the situation when they’re not comfortable is just as important in a LARP as it is in a sexual context. You are not your character, and it is perfectly reasonable to leave or avoid a game that makes you uneasy. A lot of mid-game uncomfortable situations can be avoided simply by telling players what they should expect to see and do in the game.

Because LARPs are interactive, multiplayer experiences where players’ actions shape the story (although the games’ design makes certain events likely or certain to happen), there’s huge value in players coming together to participate and co-write what happens in the game. Don’t put pressure on players to keep on playing when they’re disturbed by something in-game (I’m the type of person who would likely keep participating because I wouldn’t want to inconvenience my fellow players). Trigger and content warnings take almost no effort to provide. They’re another sample of information for players so that they can decide whether that experience is something they want. It’s not your business to counsel others on what experiences are right for them.

Once we focus more on players’ needs than spoilers, media and interactive experiences will be more welcoming to people. The more accessible we make it, the more people can enjoy it. More information doesn't hurt.

Interesting Games of 2015 You Should Play

Interesting Games of 2015 You Should Play

I'm not a believer in "game of the year" articles and awards. Many times I don't get a chance to play a great game until at least a year after the game's release, and so do lots of people. In addition, the games that usually get the sort of Game of the Year attention are the ones being distributed by huge, already well known companies with a big PR budget. This year I made it a goal to play more games by independent creators and smaller teams. This led to me playing a lot of older games as well, so I present you with two lists. One includes my recommendations for games that released this year and stood out; the other is a list of other games I played this year that came out in 2014 or earlier that I greatly enjoyed.