AdventureX 2019: stereotypes and not being 100%

Over the past few years, representation in video games has been a big subject. We no longer want muscly men saving the world and princesses waiting in castles to be rescued: we want characters we can more easily identify with and to whom we can even look up to.

While at AdventureX last weekend, my other-half and I attended a talk by Ed Fear entitled So You Got in the Room, Now What? This was billed as being about the ‘trials and tribulations of creating a third wave gay character’. It focused on the Senior Creative Designer’s work with Mediatonic Games on Murder By Numbers, a 90s-themed Hollywood detective game featuring a character called KC who is happy with himself and doesn’t really care what people think of him.

I do love adventure games but I have to admit here that Murder By Numbers isn’t the sort of thing I’d usually play. It’s good to pick up something fun and silly every once in a while, but I tend to gravitate towards more serious stories with a different kind of art-style. That being said however, Ed Fear’s presentation was an enjoyable one; he was a great public speaker with an important message to share, and left me thinking about a couple of points he made long after his talk had ended.

He said: “I came to the realisation there is absolutely nothing wrong with stereotypes. Every single person in this room conforms to a number of stereotypes, be it about their gender, their job, their social class, their sexuality, where they come from, whatever. The reason these stereotypes are pervasive is because they’re true.” We use stereotypes to simplify our social world because they reduce the amount of processing we have to do when we meet someone new. This makes them perfect for use in media such as video games.

Fear continued: “The problem with stereotypes is that they need to be a foundation. Your character obviously has to be more than that. Stereotypes are actively useful because they’re hooks, they’re handholds that people can grab onto when they see your character. When they first get to know your character they can go, ‘Ok, I get something about them’, and that’s great. That’s your opportunity then to subvert that or to build on it in a way that people aren’t expecting – but you’ve got to get people to grab onto it first.”

The designer then went on to explain why it’s so important to recognise the difference between stereotypes and caricatures. The latter is derived from an Italian term that literally means ‘a loaded portrait’ and this sums up the point perfectly: it’s loaded with bad intentions and representations. As a member of a particular group, you know which of the stereotypes and which are those that have been wrongfully placed on the community – and that, as said by Fear himself, is where your power for change lies.

AdventureX, conference, video games, The British Library, Ed Fear

During his talk, he briefly discussed a Murder By Numbers character who he feels some players may respond to negatively. This is someone who doesn’t necessary agree with how ‘forward’ KC is but they’re ultimately a good person who just needs a little educating. The designer believes some might ask for him to be removed from the game because he’s not 100% on board – “And if you’re not 100% perfect, then you’re 0%.” This made me realise something that’s been on my mind somewhat in the following days.

In the present day, we’re told over and over again by the media and influencers how important it is to view our bodies in a positive light, embrace our personalities and love who we are. But what if Fear was right: if we’re continuously being torn down online for not being 100%, then how can we ever truly be confident in ourselves? How can we embrace the person we want to become when there are so many voices telling us that person isn’t good enough?

They’re complex questions far too big to be answered in a single post so I’ll leave them there. But I will say it seems to me as though we’re all caught up in this constant battle to be happy with ourselves that we’re never going to win until we become more accepting of each other’s differences. Fear ended his talk at AdventureX on Saturday by explaining how important it is to talk about representation in video games – and that’s very a good place for us to start on other issues too.

He concluded: “The whole point of me doing this talk was that we need to start talking about [representation]. We talk so much about how to get in the room that we don’t talk about what you do when you get there… I wanted to show the fact that you can get it wrong and that you can need other people to kind of set you on the right path. So we need to start talking about this more.”

Sexualised characters: holding up a mirror to culture

It’s long been thought that the portrayals of people we see in the media have an impact on how we feel about our own bodies. Stick-thin models in magazines, beautiful actors in the movies and pretty people all over the internet are assumed to have a negative effect – but there has recently been some good news when it comes video games.

According to a study by Stetson University and Fairleigh Dickinson University, games featuring sexualised protagonists may not have as much impact on us as once thought. Female participants were asked to play Tomb Raider Underworld or Tomb Raider (2013) at random before reporting on their self-objectification and body dissatisfaction. The results indicated that the former’s sexualised version of Lara Croft didn’t make players feel body shame – or at least as not as much as other types of objectification (more about that later).

Tomb Raider, Underworld, woman, Lara Croft, ruins

These findings don’t entirely surprise me. Female characters who are inappropriately dressed for the task at hand and whose boobs seem to defy all laws of nature may make me roll my eyes in exasperation. But I don’t feel they cause me to have any internal negative thoughts, because I’m aware they’re fictional: they exist only inside a video game and therefore don’t send a realistic message about women’s bodies. Why should I bother comparing myself?

I wonder if the study’s participants feel the same way and whether the titles chosen had any effect on the results. There are other protagonists who are far more sexualised than Lara and most gamers are aware of her move towards a more realistic design over the years, so we tend to view her earlier days as a relic. In addition, the archaeologist was never simply about her looks; they’re not her only contribution to the Tomb Raider games and she can kick some serious butt, in either tiny shorts or cargo-pants.

Regardless, some will look at the findings and surmise that we no longer need to concern ourselves with sexualised characters because they don’t negatively affect players. Other forms of objectification are more damaging, with the study citing ‘catcalling’ as an example – and again I’m not surprised by this. Feeling objectified as a result of something you’ve seen in the media is a thought you’ve arrived at independently. But catcalling is a real person confirming that notion in real time, and that’s far more hurtful.

It’s not really that simple though, is it? Just because sexy protagonists don’t make us feel bad about ourselves doesn’t mean we should put up with seeing them in all of our games. Not everyone can be blond-haired, tan-skinned, big-boobed and tiny-waisted, and constantly seeing characters who embody that tired representation of beauty quickly gets boring. Games have come a long way in recent years but there’s still plenty of room for further diversity and giving us a whole range of heroes to spend time with.

Tomb Raider, 2013, Lara Croft, woman, bow and arrow, deer

It’s not about censoring, or feminism, or being offended by the sight of bouncing bosoms and pert butt-cheeks. If that’s what you want to see in your video games then knock yourself out – there are more than enough titles out there to interest you. It’s just good to be aware that being surrounded by a culture which constantly perpetuates a certain body-type as being perfect can impact how positively we feel about ourselves, and having access to media that only reflects that culture could reassert those values.

As said by professor of psychology Chris Ferguson in an interview with Kotaku: “Media holds a mirror up to culture. And sometimes we don’t like the mirror. It must be dirty or smudged for it to look this way. But it really is more of a mirror.”

Zombies: your new running partner (a QotM answer)

February’s Question of the Month is brought to you by Kevin from The Mental Attic: video game player, fiction writer and opinion sharer. To find out more about him and his site, as well as how you can get involved, take a look at this post.

If you were guilty of over-indulging during the festive season (I know I was), your New Year resolution may have been to get healthy or improve your fitness. Unfortunately though, research has shown that over half of us fail to keep them due to a lack of commitment or a loss of motivation so how do we give ourselves a fighting chance?

Kevin posed us the following challenge as his submittal for this month’s QotM: which video game character do you recruit as your personal trainer to get you back into shape? And I have the perfect answer: zombies.

For the past few years I’ve entered the British 10K for as part of the team for SpecialEffect, a charity which helps those with physical disabilities play video games to increase rehabilitation, confidence and inclusion. While I love feeling as though I’m doing my bit to support this amazing organisation, I absolutely hate training; I’m not a ‘natural’ runner and I find it difficult to drag myself outside when it’s cold and wet.

Raising awareness for SpecialEffect and burning a few calories while doing so is a worthy goal, but sometimes a little extra incentive is needed for an added push to get up off the sofa. What if that incentive was having hundreds of lives counting on you, knowing you need to rebuild your base and collect supplies to save shivering survivors and learn the truth about the zombie apocalypse?

That’s where Zombies, Run! comes in.

Co-created with award-winning novelist Naomi Alderman by Six to Start, this app is advertised as ‘an ultra-immersive running game and audio adventure’. After pulling on your trainers and sticking your headphones in, each run becomes a mission where you’re the hero at the centre of your very own zombie story as a series of dynamic radio messages and voice recordings play between your own music.

Every time you run, you’ll automatically collect supplies like medicine and food which you can then use to help your community and strengthen your defences against the zombies once you get back home. And if saving the world wasn’t enough, you can activate ‘chases’ to kick things up a notch; can you escape every mob or will you have to drop some of your hard-earned supplies to distract them?

I have to admit that I’ve never tried Zombies, Run! or any fitness app like it so I can’t say whether it works. But having a pack of growling zombies snapping at my heels along with the ability to turn a training session into a game would probably give me that extra motivation to get moving, even when it’s raining outside. I’ve not yet signed up for this year’s British 10K but if I do, this app will be the next thing on my purchase list.

If zombies aren’t your thing, Six to Start have a couple of other options which might appeal. The Walk is a techno-thriller which encourages people to walk 10,000 each day while they’re on the run from terrorists; and Superhero Workout is encourages users to complete high-intensity workouts at home while defending Earth from an alien attack. Both sound way more fun than Wii Fit ever was.

More information can be found on the developer’s website and Zombies, Run! can be downloaded from the App Store and Google Play. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s ever used this or other fitness apps: did they work for you?

Kitacon 2017: body confidence in cosplay

While my other-half and I were at Kitacon this past weekend, we attended a panel entitled Body Confidence in Cosplay. Neither of us are cosplayers ourselves but after overhearing someone say that ‘cosplay is for skinny girls’, it’s a subject that has resonated with me. We could all do with a little more confidence in ourselves and support from others.

We expected to go to a panel which promoted self-confidence and feeling good about yourself in your costume. We wanted the host to tell us it’s ok to not look like the stick-thin models we see in magazines and on television, and inspire everybody in the audience to feel comfortable in their own skin. We thought we’d leave the room empowered, and believing we could take on any cosplay outfit and absolutely rock it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. What we got instead was a half-hour session on how to make costumes to hide the bits of your body you don’t like, cover up scars and get skin treatment, and that it’s ok to manipulate your photographs if you feel the need to.

The host deserves respect for being brave enough to step forward when the Kitacon organisers asked for volunteers to host a panel. Public-speaking isn’t something everyone is able to do but he had the balls to stand up in front of a room full of strangers, provide advice and share his personal stories. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were presenters who pulled out at the last moment due to stage-fright so much kudos to him for doing it.

I’m just not convinced the message above was the right one to send, particularly the presentation slide that included the words ‘don’t be afraid to use Photoshop if you want to’. Alterations made through applications like this can have a negative effect on both the person in the photograph and others who see it, setting unrealistic expectations for body-image and making us all feel horrible in our own skin.

I totally get it: in 2017 we should have finally learnt to be more accepting of one another regardless of our size, shape or sex (or anything else for that matter) but sadly that’s still not the case. Unachievable standards put forward by the beauty industry and hostility from others puts us all under pressure to change the way we look and present a ‘better’ version of ourselves online.

Kitacon, cosplay, masquerade

But diversity is a thing that should be celebrated, not something that’s ridiculed or used for ammunition. Instead of using material, makeup and image-manipulation to cover up our flaws, shouldn’t we learn to embrace our imperfections and reject the standards that push us to edit ourselves? If we begin to do this and encourage those around us to do the same, unachievable definitions of ‘beauty’ will slowly transform into something more positive.

It would have been good to see a panel at Kitacon that promoted diversity and an uplifting message. That’s not to say the host didn’t offer some good advice though and some of his ‘final thoughts’ are definitely worth highlighting here. As said on one of his slides, cosplay is all about having fun and you don’t have to do anything you’re uncomfortable with; and at the end of the day, we’re all amazing just the way we are.

Aloy: because she’s worth it

Video games often require the player to go with logic which at first seems a little… well, flimsy. For example, Lara Croft may be the first person to enter an ancient tomb in years but will find a machine gun upgrade lying in the rubble. Go figure.

That however pale in comparison when you compare it to a more recent one. A fact so completely beyond belief that if you think about it for too long, there’s a very real danger the fabric of the entire universe will disintegrate around us and video games will be a thing of the past. What am I talking about?

Aloy’s hair in Horizon Zero Dawn.

This girl can rappel down the world’s tallest mountain and slide into a patch of tall grass as soon as she hits the dirt. She can go head-to-head with Thunderjaws, Rockbreakers and Deathbringers without even breaking a sweat or a fingernail. She can take all that Mother’s Heart throws as her and her gorgeous, thick hair still looks as though she just stepped out of a L’Oreal advert – and she knows she’s worth it. With a few grey hairs starting to show, a desperate need for straighteners on a daily basis and an aversion to even the slightest damp day, mine makes me look as if I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards in comparison.

I should hate her, really despise that makeup- that-looks-like-no-makeup thing she has going on and her ability to come out of any scenario with an immaculate appearance. But I just can’t; her attitude and independence make her one of the most likeable characters I’ve ever had the opportunity to step into the shoes of. Her physical beauty isn’t something she nurtures and she pulls up anyone who doubts her skill due to her age or gender. She tells men that her ‘eyes are up here’, questions the right of the matriarchs to take power simply because they’ve had children, and pulls apart any traditions that don’t make sense. She’s simply awesome.

Aloy’s red tresses were the work of Johan Lithvall, character artist at Starbreeze Studios. He said on the ArtStation website:

It was a fun challenge to learn the intricacy of game hair development and work with my colleagues in code, rigging and shading to realize our 100k triangles in-game hair for Aloy to be fully dynamic, driven by 50 splines at 3-5 ms whilst maintaining a stable 30fps on a PS4 system.

Take a look at the images on the site – I love the way the protagonist is perfect-but-not-perfect, with flyaway hairs escaping from her braids and the style not entirely symmetrical.

Khinjarsi recently published a post on Upon Completion entitled All the Small Things which notes that it’s the smaller details in video games which ‘make us laugh, make us cry or bring us that little bit closer to our characters’. There are a number of such elements in Horizon Zero Dawn that elevate it to being one of the most gorgeous games I’ve ever experienced. Aloy’s hair ruffles when the wind catches it, and she hunches over and hugs herself when she’s battered by the rain. The mechanical beasts limp and spark when they’re wounded, and the way interact with their herd is almost magical. And have you seen the tree ants? You need to see the tree ants.

In a recent patch, developer Guerrilla Games included an update for the title’s photo mode and I’ve been making the most of the new filters, poses and facial expressions. Soak up Aloy’s model-like beauty below – because she’s worth it.

Horizon Zero Dawn photo gallery

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Cosplay: not just for skinny girls

Last month my other-half and I took my stepson to the GEEK event in Margate, a weekend dedicated to celebrating games and play. Two people were chatting my the exit as we were leaving at end of the day and as we passed, we heard one of them say:

Cosplay is for skinny girls. It’s basically dressing up and they don’t make costumes for fat girls.

Ethan started getting into cosplay just over a year ago, ever since we took him to his first MCM Comic Con in London and he was amazed by all the costumes. His ears therefore pricked up when he heard this discussion so it was important to set the record straight as quickly as possible: I told him that what had been said was ‘a load of rubbish’ and that cosplay is an activity for everyone.

What this person had announced really annoyed me, both as an individual and as a member of the community. This was no kind of message to be sharing at an event which promotes itself as being family-friendly. Any child could have been passing by while the conversation was taking place; and unfortunately for me it was my stepson, a young kid who’s already starting to struggle with body-confidence issues and fears about his size.

In addition to the weight reference, why direct it at ‘skinny girls’ and not ‘skinny people’? Was the implication that cosplay is for females only or that boys can do it regardless of their body-shape? In actual fact, it doesn’t really matter because both views are damaging. And that’s not to mention incorrect – the community is one of the most inclusive I’ve come across in all my years of blogging.

Now for the bit about them ‘not making costumes for fat girls’. Yes, it’s possible to buy your outfit fully made and complete with accessories; but a large section of the cosplay community makes all or part of their costumes themselves. It therefore follows that you can create whatever you want to – and there were workshops at GEEK for attendees who wanted to learn how to get started.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about overhearing the conversation was that both of the individuals having it were female. Was it a case that the woman from whom the quote above had come had been made to feel so self-conscious about her body in the past, that she now thought the entire world of cosplay was withheld from her? Or was she showing some kind of hostility towards others of her sex in an act of competition?

Both still happen far too often. You’d think that in 2017 we’d have finally learnt to be more accepting of people regardless of their size, shape or sex – or anything else for that matter – but sadly that’s not the case. Diversity should be a thing that’s celebrated, not something that’s ridiculed or used as ammunition.

Overwatch, video game, Tracer, character, female, woman, face, sunglasses, visor

Many cosplayers base their costumes on video game characters and we have such a wide range to take inspiration from. When I was a kid, all we had was Chun-Li (could be worse) to pointy-boobed Lara Croft (a lot worse). Diversity is everywhere in the gaming world today: just look at Tracer from Overwatch, Cremesius Acclasi from Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Vella Tartine from Broken Age. And that’s just for starters.

Let’s point out before wrapping up this post that it in no way should be taken as a comment on the event itself: I applaud GEEK’s organisers for making it as inclusive and as family-friendly as it was. That quote at the start was the view of one person, but there’s something I’d like to say in response.

Cosplay isn’t just for skinny girls – it’s an activity for absolutely everyone. You can be damn sure I’m going to have a great time doing it at Kitacon in August. And that’s regardless of whether you care to look at my wobbly bits encased in lycra or not.