I realized today that I can’t expect to be taken seriously as a writer on video games and stay silent on the #number1reason hashtag that took over twitter this week (Rose, Mike. “Twitter hashtag ‘#1reasonwhy’ exposes sexism in game industry.” Gamasutra. Nov 27 2012.). In short, I support it. I call myself a feminist and so far nobody has had a problem with that who doesn’t already have a problem with feminism at large. Anytime somebody is subjected to unfair treatment they should speak up. Their supporters should speak up. That was why I was proud of myself for writing about unfair portrayals of women in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 on PopMatters (“One Dimension: Women’s Bodies in Tekken.” Sep 25 2012) and my followup comments on this very blog (“Sexism and Tekken.” Sep 27 2012). Recalling Tekken games past, I don’t remember the portrayal of women to be so, well, gross. Men have always outnumbered women in the series, but in the polygonal days of the series’ youth, the women were fully clothed, not all of their victory poses were burlesque and they were not built from the ground up with fan service in mind.
So when the series starts to portray its women in such an exploitative fashion, I thought it was something to bring up. I wanted to call sexism where I saw it. I got plenty of the knee-jerk counterarguments of “all video games are misogynistic†” and, “Listen man, sex sells, it’s just the way the people work†” and of course, “Who cares? Women don’t even play video games†, especially not fighting games†” and the mentioned-at-least-once-every-time-this-conversation-arises, “sexism is just a part of nerd culture†.” But, like I said, I think it’s important to call things things out when people see them. I got a lot of great support from a lot of writers I really respect, so I felt like I had done the right thing.
In my mind, it was worth talking about because, at the very least, if somebody wants to take the position that Tekken is not sexist, than they have to actively think about the cultural gender binaries to place Tekken on acceptable ground. They have to come to an understanding—however skewed—of what unfair portrayal and treatment is. They have to draw a line of what is a respectful and dignified portrayal of a woman and what is an exploitative and unfair portrayal of a woman and they have to form some ground for their argument that Tekken‘s portrayal of women is acceptable. I don’t think I changed anybody’s mind, but if this sort of thing is called out enough times from enough different sources then—well—who knows.
This brings me to Chaos on Deponia. I had the pleasure of reviewing Chaos on Deponia recently for PopMatters (Review: Chaos on Deponia. Nov 30 2012.). There were a few things in the review I left out that really deserve mentioning. The game enforces a patriarchal view of women and queer people. Firstly, Chaos on Deponia is a comedy. Which means that if it isn’t funny than there’s no point in playing it. As a game, Deponia is actually pretty frustrating. The only thing that’s made it worth going through is that it’s a decent comedy; in fact, by the time the game ends, the mechanics start to be frustrating in service of the game’s comedy in a brilliant instance of ludonarrative resonance. It’s also a pretty immature game. There’s a really well timed fart joke in Chaos on Deponia. It’s funny. I laughed at it. There’s nothing wrong with a comedy being immature. But its immaturity came with a lot of baggage and I want to look at how the humour in the series works.
The first creative writing I’ve ever had released in a public forum was comedy. I wrote short sketches for a comedy group and, while by no means would I ever suggest I have any level of expertise in the form, for whatever it’s worth, people told me I was good at it and I believe them. I decided early on that I didn’t want to offend people without a good reason. If you’re going to attack somebody’s way of thinking or behaving, I thought, than it better not just be for kicks. That’s just being a turd. The way I avoiding hurting anybody’s feeling was changing the object of a joke. In other words, what the audience was supposed to laugh at. Deponia doesn’t care what you laugh at so long as you’re laughing, and that’s where it’s often in really poor taste.
For example, there’s a part late in Chaos on Deponia where Rufus meets a homeless man named Goon (a “bum,” as he call him). Goon, who calls himself an academic and speaks with a British accent (class signifiers that indicate that the man doesn’t deserve to be homeless), begs Rufus for food. Rufus retorts that Goon is not a very good bum and that bums don’t eat food, they eat old shoes. The player actually gets bananas and canned tuna in that chapter but if they try to give them to Goon, Rufus goes on a tirade about how Goon could be a better bum if he learned to eat old shoes. To progress, the player first destroys Goon’s only possession (an umbrella) and then takes the remains to exchange for a shoe for Goon to eat. It’s a pretty ruthless view of poverty and homelessness, but the joke is not on Goon, it’s on Rufus. Rufus is an idiot with a preconceived and irreversible opinion about homelessness and, in his effort to help Goon, he ensures he will stay in the same rotten situation. The joke is about homelessness, it’s about a suffering homeless man, but the joke isn’t on homelessness, it’s on indifference to homelessness.
But the humour doesn’t consistently make Rufus the butt of every joke. In the first game, Deponia, there is a character named Lotti. Lotti is very obviously a trans-woman and she’s very obviously meant to be laughed at. She is tall, with a sturdy frame, a large square jaw and a shadow of facial hair. She wears a pink dress, pearls and red lipstick. When she talks she coughs between a high-pitched squeal and a gruff shout. The joke is that this person with very masculine features is wearing feminine clothing and goes by a feminine name. Interestingly, in Chaos on Deponia, the female character Goal’s brain implant is placed in the body of a man. Rufus decides not to treat her any different because Goal is still Goal no matter what her exterior and he elects to kiss her to prove he doesn’t think any differently of her. The camera zooms in and Rufus’s “kiss” is more of a slobbery lick, which is funny because that isn’t how you’re supposed to kiss somebody. But what’s important is that, in Rufus’s mind, he not only acknowledges that it’s possible for a woman to be trapped in a man’s body, but he accepts Goal in whatever body she occupies [EDIT: I’ve since learned that viewing transgender people as “trapped in the wrong body” is harmful and reductionist in its own right: gender is not so simple as this or that and many transpeople don’t feel “trapped” in their own body at all]. Of course, it’s then revealed that Goal was not in that body after all and Rufus actually kissed a man by accident. Hilarious.
These sorts of inconsistencies make Deponia a difficult game to like. Because while I can enjoy it for it’s boyish (and it is boyish) slapstick comedy and absurdity, or its occasional jab at (perhaps unintentional) social commentary, it keeps yanking hard on the choke chain to remind me of how unnerving it is fundamentally. Deponia is about a man who falls in love with a woman before she says a single word to him because she represents an ideal. Chaos on Deponia is about that same woman’s personalities being split apart and the hero’s quest to win their heart and, presumably, the deed to her vagina. Rufus is an asshole and we’re not supposed to like him. But he is the player-controlled character so we are supposed to see the world from his perspective. On some level we have to identify with him and want him to succeed: his only redeeming quality is his never-say-die gumption. Admirable, but when applied to sex-politics, way too creepy. There’s an early exchange between Goal and Rufus, where Rufus flirts with Goal and she tells him to bugger off, he replies with, “you keep saying no but your eyes say yes.” Maybe the “No means No” campaign may not hold as much weight in Germany where the game was developed, but in a culture where persistence is widely viewed as a better route to sex with a woman than her consent, that kind of dialogue is chilling.
Eventually, by the time the player gets to know Goal a little bit better, she turns out to actually be a pretty good match for Rufus. They’re quite similar and the chemistry they share makes their romance seem plausible. But that’s in the last quarter of the second game in the series. Which means for seven-eights of the story so far, the primary love story has been about a bad man badgering a mostly silent woman into loving him and/or becoming somebody that would suit him. And no matter how funny it was when Rufus started a housefire by looking for a hammer in a toolbox, the game still spends a significant amount of time making fun of marginalized people for being marginalized, and its plot is still basically “man gets what he wants just because.”
Deponia is sexist. But it’s tricky because it isn’t the same type of exploitation as in Tekken. In Tekken, there’s a woman with pink squid wrapping its phallic tentacles over her breasts and vulva. It’s fairly easy to call that out for being inappropriate. But Deponia is harder to argue with because, “c’mon man, it’s just a joke.” Worse is that many of the jokes are pretty entertaining. I don’t want it to be an intense and heavy deconstruction of gender politics, I just want it to stop being so smug about targeting certain classes of people. Imagine that Yosemite Sam is chasing Bugs Bunny to the ledge of a cliff. Now imagine Sam diving to tackle Bugs, only for Bugs to duck into his rabbit hole at the last second, sending Sam over the ledge, standing in air for a moment before gazing into the camera with a look of sadness and apprehension and then falling with a long whistle. Now imagine Bugs turning to the camera and saying “what a retard!” because, to the abled, disability is funny. Right? Right? This scene more-or-less plays out in Chaos in Deponia. There’s this gaping cognitive dissonance that I can’t settle with the game.
I only devoted about a sentence to this issue in the positive review I gave Chaos on Deponia. But after seeing the image below on Daedalic’s home page promoting the game, I had to acknowledge that I was endorsing a sexist game [EDIT: While I appreciate the increase in traffic, I’ve removed the suggestive picture of Goal from this article because too many people were using it to jerk off]. The image (which I believe is an in-game bonus unlocked by finding the puzzle pieces that make up the image) appears at the front of a video of the dev team smashing up a car in a junkyard. Why did they need to introduce their video with a spread of a naked cartoon? Cause all games are sexist, sex sells, chicks don’t play games—especially not adventure games—and sexism is just a part of nerd culture so get over it.
So that’s what I have to say about Deponia. I don’t want to write it off entirely because there are games that are more misogynistic. But, God damn, there’s no reason for Deponia to take so many cheap shots at people who don’t deserve it. The humour operates entirely on a surface level (and there’s nothing wrong with that), and for too many of the jokes, the surface is, “hey, look at the weirdo, they’re unlike us!” Honestly, now that I’ve reached the end of this article, I’m not even sure if I really have any claim to what I’m arguing. After all, I still liked the game, even though it’s unforgivable at times, and at the time of writing three of the top five search engine phrases suggest that more people stumble onto my writing while looking for porn based on Tekken, not looking for a critical look of gender roles in games. So…there’s that.
†Not all video games are misogynistic and certainly not all are misogynistic in the same ways or to the same extents
†Sex doesn’t sell, it just catches someone’s attention with no promise of keeping it (Bushman, B., 2005. “Violence and sex in television programs do not sell products in advertisements.” Psychological Science, 16(9), 702-708)
†Yes, women do play games. About 47% of gamers are women and women over 18 are the fastest growing audience according to the Entertainment Software Association
†Read Maddy Myers’ experience in trying to improve her fighting game skill for an example of how toxic the fighting game community can be on The Phoenix
Further reading: Pina, Kristina. “Story Mode Complete: Chaos on Deponia.” GeekeryDo. Dec 3 2012.
“Deponia.” Fucknovideogames. Nov 24 2012.
“Deponia and Casual Sexism.”The Mighty If!. Oct 22 2012.