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.”

The return to blogging

After Matt from Normal Happenings tagged Later Levels in a Daily Inkling recently, it felt time to write about my return to blogging. Until recently it was almost three years since writing my last post for a blog, now long forgotten, which could be described as the prequel to this site.

The beginning of my long trip began with the inception of ideas that became Later Levels but for reasons now unclear, at least in my mind, I took the non-blogging direction. Somehow I was comfortable with this outcome and slipped into what I would call the ‘normal gamer’ life, being content with merely playing games and not taking much more from the experience.

Rezzed, NEC, Birmingham, GeetOut UK, Tim, Joel, Kim, Phil

Before this long trip I’d every gaming event possible, had exposure to developers, participated in discussions with a vast community on WordPress, had opportunities to develop my photography and video-editing skills, and was part of a fantastic group of friends with a shared passion for video games. I honestly couldn’t give one single reason why I chose to forego that part of my life, and it was at the beginning of 2019 when I was gripped by feelings of depression and the desire to wake up from my ‘normal gamer’ coma.

There was something in my life that was key to the mental wellbeing that I had managed to avoid during my long trip, but there’s no place like home. Being honest with myself and those I care about and have been close to was the most important step. It doesn’t automatically change everything for the better, but it does add purpose to your existence – a goal perhaps, something you can focus on.

The saying ‘it gets worse before it gets better’ had a lot of meaning to me at this point as I began to see how much I had missed during my time away now that my focus was on returning to blogging. Having continued playing video games, seeing new trends arrive, forming opinions on controversies and finding new gaming addictions, it was tough not having a place to share my thoughts and discuss them with like-minded gamers.

I think there became a boiling point at which I could hold back the tide no longer and asked Kim if I could make a post or two, which was completely out-of-the-blue and unexpected. Still, if you never take any risks you’ll never get anywhere in life, and she was very kind to let me post the article Live service games: ‘But it’s good now!’, a topic burning away in my mind for months since the release and of Fallout 76 and its controversies last year. It was just what I needed!

The post was well-received judging by the comments, and I’m so grateful to everyone for reading and commenting, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It represents the power of the amazing WordPress community, and I don’t know where else there is on the entire web to have such a positive experience.

Not long after this post I was lucky enough to meet TriformTrinity in person when we sat and discussed all areas of gaming and pop culture. It was incredible to see how much knowledge one person can recall so quickly and it felt like we had all known each other for years. It’s these encounters with fellow gamers and developers I had missed so much from blogging life. Writing just isn’t possible without meeting people and having these experiences, otherwise, you’re stuck in an own echo chamber which loosens your grip on reality and is hard to break out of.

Something I’ve always struggled with in blogging is output – the speed of writing posts, to be specific. Compared to content creation on a site like YouTube, writing gives you time to craft something that captures your thoughts precisely by focusing solely on the written words, compared to the various factors that go into creating a video. In the time it takes to edit a sequence of clips into something engaging and understandable, you can write several posts which much more meaning and to a high standard.

I feel that ten minutes of video doesn’t convey ideas or thoughts anywhere near as quickly as reading an article in the same length of time. Have you ever read a book and then followed up with the film adaptation and wondered why so much character development and plot mechanics were stripped away? I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary for the first time and then watched the 1989 adaptation. While the film was enjoyable, they cut most of the internal monologue of the main character, Louis, that added weight to his actions and made the ending so jarring.

gamecom, expo, exhibition, crowd, queue

While my writing doesn’t flow easily from mind to paper, I do thoroughly enjoy it and will happily spend hours re-writing and checking everything until everything is perfect. However, this is being tested throughout August with the Blaugust 2019 challenge. It’s a step outside of my blogging comfort zone, with not only coming up with topics to write about, but to get them written in a reasonable amount of time and not screw up the schedule. So far I feel it’s going quite well and the challenge will increase later in the month as I’m heading to gamescom in Cologne, Germany where I’ll be writing a post for each day of the event. Look out for these in the final week of August!

To summarise the return to blogging from my long hiatus: it started with a complete downturn in my mental wellbeing and a desire to return to the community. It was essential to seize all and any opportunity to heal by reaching out to others for help and committing to taking the appropriate steps without relapse. Life isn’t perfect, and you must learn to accept the reality of any situation and put the responsibility on yourself to resolve it in the best way you can. Not only is time a healer but it also allows everything to slot back into place one piece at a time, and to learn from mistakes.

So, here’s to a much stronger blogging career and thank you to everyone for your support and encouragement. Keep those tweets and comments coming!

The hardest thing about blogging

Blogging can be a very rewarding thing. It can give someone a channel to express themselves and share their opinions with the world; it can open the door to a network of people with similar passions and interests, along with some great conversations; and it’s the perfect way to learn from those around you and refine your writing skills.

But it’s not an easy hobby and it can take a lot of effort. Having to come up with ideas for new posts on a regular basis, keeping up with reading the articles published by other bloggers and fitting it all in while dealing with adult responsibilities can hit the motivation hard. And then there’s the dreaded writers’ block: when you stare at a blank page for what seems like hours, knowing that you really need to have something ready for the following day but not having a clue what to write.

I count myself extremely lucky that I don’t often suffer from these things. I’ve been blogging for over five years now (with Later Levels going for almost two of them) and don’t see that stopping. My day-job is all about best-practice, analysing data and writing processes, so writing gives me a positive creative outlet. And when I’m not sure what to write about, I dip into a stash of post suggestions I save for a rainy day and which I add to whenever inspiration for a new article subject strikes.

There is something I do find difficult though, and it’s going to sound pretty weird considering the nature of blogging: it’s the social aspect of blogging that’s the most challenging for me. I’ve been thinking about writing on this subject for a while now and it’s a lovely Sunshine Blogger Award from the BeardedGamer82 Gaming Blog that has finally given me the push to do it. After all, what sort of writer uses a public platform like WordPress and then admits they find the social side of it the hardest?

Well, this one for sure because I totally suck at it. I’m not a naturally social person: I can be quite happy with my own company or that of just a few family and close friends. I can go an entire day without having any contact and not get stressed out by it or feel lonely. That’s not to say I dislike the companionship of others; I just prefer small groups to large ones, and after interacting I need to retreat into my corner in order to let my ‘social meter’ fill back up so it’s ready for use again the following day.

Blogging is the opposite of this. Visit any website or read any book which claims to give advice on how to do it properly and the one thing they all agree on is that it’s about interaction. You need to be willing to open yourself up to meeting new people and instigating conversation with them. The community aspect of the activity is indeed one of the best things about it and the group I’ve found here is one of the nicest and most supportive I could wish to be a member of.

Sadly though, I still find it difficult when faced with a large group. If I’m in a chat with a handful of others, then I’m usually fine and can follow and join in with the discussion. But get to more than five people or so and the anxiety about saying the wrong thing starts to creep in, leaving me unable to keep up with the conversation. Social media is a minefield that I frequently prefer not to navigate, and I admire those bloggers who can just jump straight and get involved without any hesitation.

Is it weird then that I continue blogging despite its social nature? Probably, but I’ve found it’s the perfect way to push myself outside of my comfort zone; and doing that that sometimes be the only way to overcome something and make a change. The hobby has taught me a lot about myself and my anxieties over the years, and Later Levels is now something that reminds me it’s not healthy to always retreat into my shell. It’s no fun holding back all the time even if it is far less scary.

The benefit of blogging has been noticeable in my work life too. Although I wouldn’t say it’s yet the most pleasurable of experiences, I’m able to attend overnight conferences away from home and even network when I need to – a word that would have brought me out in a cold sweat previously. The fact I’m to represent SpecialEffect by volunteering on their stand at events, meeting attendees and talking to them about the charity’s work, is an achievement which shouldn’t be underestimated.

I’ve come to realise that I’m never going to be someone who’s completely at ease in social situations, or who’s always active in conversations. But that’s ok because I know I can do it now. Sometimes you just need to bite back your fears and show them who’s boss by doing the very thing that scares you.

This post is dedicated to the BeardedGamer82 Gaming Blog, who very kindly nominated Later Levels for the Sunshine Blogger Award in August. Thank you to him for giving me the opportunity to tell this story.

Where it all began

There are many of us who enjoy playing video games in all their forms and see them as more than just pretty pixels on a screen. But what makes some of us decide to put down the controller for a moment, take a step back, pick up a keyboard and begin writing about them?

For me, it all started on a weekend back over five years ago. It was February 2013 and I was in a bookshop where a pile of black-and-green tomes has been stacked on a table in the corner: 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die by Tony Mott. I had a quick leaf through its pages and when I saw The Secret of Monkey Island had been included in its recommendations (he he), I took a copy to the counter and made a purchase.

One evening the following week, I met a couple of friends in a pub after work and happened to mention this book to them. After saying how much I’d love to be able to work my way through all of the games listed, one of them suggested creating a blog to record our thoughts on each entry; and this sounded like a great idea at the time, with the fact that none of us had any writing experience not being a deterrent. Perhaps that glass of wine had something to do with it.

Anyway: from there we went on to design our first blog together, choosing its initial look (black and green in honour of our inspiration) and the type of content we wanted to publish. We decided to write formal reviews with a fixed structure and scoring system – not the most creative direction we could have taken but one which made sense to us and felt comfortable at the time. Two of us worked in IT and had a fondness for process and consistency, and this showed in our writing.

A few months later, we got chatting to another gaming blogger who coincidentally worked in a nearby area, so we arranged to meet up for a drink at Meltdown (included in my gamers’ guide to London). That person turned out to be Ben and it was blogging-love-at-first-sight: we all hit it off straight away and it was clear this was going to be a beautiful friendship. We eventually managed to persuade him to join us and our team of three became four.

Our first few years together as a foursome were excellent and I had experiences I’ll never forget. I had the opportunity to meet developers I’d always admired, becoming starstruck and tongue-tied. We found out about SpecialEffect and became volunteers for the charity, working on their stand at expos and participating in the annual GameBlast marathons. And I got to watch Ben during his interviews and learn he was a natural in front of the camera.

In August 2014, after moving to a different part of Essex for a fresh start, someone overheard me having a conversation with a friend about Street Fighter. He introduced himself as ‘Pete’ and started trying to guess my favourite character; and in a conversation over a couple of drinks, we realised we’d grown up in houses on parallel streets and had moved to the same town as adults had had never met each other before (it’s a small world).

It soon became clear this was also going to be another beautiful ‘friendship’ and a few months after meeting his young son, I wrote a piece dedicated to Ethan called The wisdom of the LEGO Movie Videogame. It explained how he and Pete didn’t see me as a ‘girl’: they saw me as a gamer who happened to be female, and one they were happy spending time with playing and talking about video games. This made me hopeful for the future.

That post was the turning point. The boys had opened my eyes to writing something more personal and it had felt strangely exhilarating, and I finally had the courage to admit I didn’t enjoy writing reviews. I realised that I’d started to attempt each new gaming experience in a way which was almost clinical, with one eye always on the lookout for material for the next article, and I’d forgotten about the sheer joy that comes from playing video games.

EGX, video games, expo, event., gamers, Kim, Pete

I also realised that I no longer enjoyed working with the team I was in as the blog had changed our relationship over the past three years. The main problem was our attitude – both to the site and each other – and as our popularity grew, we became cocky and over-ambitious. Certain members were unfairly left picking up most of the work and it had started to become a job; and when you get to that point, you know that something has to give.

Ben and I finally decided to call it a day in March 2016 and split from our two colleagues who, as far as I’m aware, are no longer writing. My blogging-partner-in-crime and I took some time out to figure out a new direction for ourselves and after spending several months coming up with ideas and designing a new site, Later Levels was born towards the end of that year.

Sadly adult responsibilities and family commitments have meant Ben isn’t able to appear as frequently as he used to, but you’ll notice his name still remains at the bottom of the blog. That’s because there’s a permanent place for him here. He’s been a good friend over the years, always there with a kind word or some sage advice when things are getting tough, and I’m extremely lucky to have been given the chance to meet him back in 2013.

Regardless of how difficult it has been at times, I wouldn’t change anything about my blogging journey. I’ve learnt a number of valuable lessons (sometimes the hard way) over the past five years and this is what inspired me to add an advice section to the site a few months ago. I’m in no way an expert and there are people out there who are more way more intelligent and experienced than I am; but if my words can help just one person, then it’s worth it.

I think one of the most important things to remember is that there are no quick wins. Blogging can be a pain in the butt sometimes – having to come up with ideas for new posts on a regular basis, making time to read articles by other writers, fitting it all in between work and family – and resorting to dubious measures can sometimes be tempting. But they’ll only result in hollow stats and will never get you to where you really want to be.

Instead, it’s necessary for every blogger to find their ‘thing’: the inspiration which makes them push on. You need something that’s going to motivate you and drive you forward when it feels as though the odds are stacked against you – be it a love for writing, a passion for your subject or the awesome people around you. If you’re stuck in rut, you may even consider giving a bit of community and collaboration a go.

Rezzed, SpecialEffect, Ben, Kim, Pete

No matter how tough it seems, keep telling yourself it will get better and stick with it. You need to give yourself time and space to make mistakes and learn from them, and grow into the writer you are. Just remember that there’s a whole group of amazing bloggers around you who are happy to share advice, offer moral support, celebrate achievements and even send a funny GIF or two.

To every single person reading this: you’re awesome and you don’t need to be more or less than you are. It’s great to have you here.

This post is dedicated to the ladies from Double Jump, who very kindly nominated Later Levels for the Sunshine Blogger Award in April. Thank you to Kris and Rachel for giving me the opportunity to tell this story and indulge in some reminiscing.

Checkpoint: a letter to Ethan

Dear Ethan,

You’ve probably got your head stuck in another Minecraft video right now, so I need you to tear yourself away from YouTube for a few minutes. I promise this won’t take long and then you can get back to what you were watching – just one final video before cleaning your bedroom, ok? I know you’re rolling your ten-year old eyes at me while reading this but you know the deal: chores equal pocket-money.

You and your dad are my world, I’ve told you that often enough. You make being a stepmum more easy than I deserve but sometimes, it’s more difficult than you’ll ever understand. It’s so hard to watch you feel the need to compare yourself to everyone around you and see you crushed when you consider yourself lacking; then even harder to hear you say you don’t believe us when we tell you just how awesome you are.

There are so many amazing things about you and maybe me putting them into words for all the world to see will finally convince you of them. I know part of you will blush and moan at me for being ’embarrassing’ but hopefully the other part will forgive me, and finally start to realise what makes you so special. I’m willing to take that risk.

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Ethan

One area you should never compare yourself to others in is imagination. You’re more imaginative than anyone I’ve ever known and you’ve been making up your own stories since the day we first met. Remember how we were supposed to go to the supermarket to buy supplies for a picnic, but instead you had me running around the aisles with you while hiding from your dad? We were the brave soldiers and he was the enemy. He wasn’t best pleased when he finally found us hiding underneath rack of dresses in the clothing section, but it was kind of funny.

Now you’re getting older, you’re starting to make up plots for video games and keep your ideas for them in your notebook – and I appreciate the fact you’ve added a particular character to some of them, a female protagonist who’s clever and kicks butt at the same time. Maybe one day we can sit down together to write a post about all your plans and share them with everyone.

Those worlds exist inside your head only. Nobody else can create the stories you do or send us on the wild adventures you come up with. Don’t ever change and let that spark die because I tell you what, kid: it’s going to take you to all sorts of wonderful places when you get older.

Insomnia, video games, Ethan, Kim

Stop comparing yourself to those you watch on YouTube and getting frustrated when you can’t complete a game as quickly as they appear to do. Stop worrying when your friends at school tell you they’re better gamers and you’re so far behind them. Those YouTubers edit their videos but they can’t edit real life; and it’s highly likely your friends are fibbing when they shout about how great they are. (Also, if they really are playing Call of Duty at the age of ten, someone needs to have an urgent word with their parents and tell them they need to spend more time with their kids).

Video games are meant to be fun and we each play for all sorts of reasons – winning is only a small part of it. Your dad plays because he likes exploring every part of a game and looking for secret objects and trophies. I like getting wrapped up in the stories and trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. And you, I know you like pretending to be the characters and making them a part of your next plot. In fact, most people I know enjoy video games for reasons other than winning – maybe I’ll share them in another letter to you soon.

I know it’s hard but try to push all those doubts to one side and just keep being you. Keep playing video games, keep having fun, and keep creating your fantastical stories. Your dad and I think you’re awesome just the way we are, and the world wouldn’t be as bright a place without your wonderful imagination.

We’re proud of you.

All my love,

Your stepmum   x

Storm in a tea-Cuphead

At the end of August, I published a post about an experience we’d had with my stepson recently. He’d become agitated during a session of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, so much so we had to pull the controller away from him; and he revealed his frustration was coming from the fact he’d seen YouTubers complete it much faster than he was able to.

This got me wondering about the effect gameplay videos have on both our kids and ourselves. Do they have the potential to turn gaming from a hobby into something which is only fun if you’re succeeding, and pile on the pressure to complete a title without any fails? If that’s the case, it then follows that it could end up being easier to watch someone else play a game than attempt it yourself – and that sucks.

Shelby from Falcon Game Reviews left the following insightful comment on the post: “YouTube doesn’t make it any easier, that’s for sure. I know that while looking at my own streams, I’ve been tempted to cut footage that made me look like a fool before uploading it. Even on my normal videos I’m constantly debating what to cut and keep because I don’t like how it turned out.”

Little did we realise how timely our conversation was. A few days earlier on 24 August 2017, VentureBeat lead writer Dean Takahashi published a video of himself playing Cuphead at the Gamescom expo in Germany. Then just over a week later on 02 September 2017, gamers all over the world were calling for him to hand in his notice and questioning just how good a gamer you need to be in order to legitimately review video games.

So what happened?

In Takahashi’s own words: “I played the tutorial so ineptly – failing to read the onscreen instructions to jump and dash simultaneously – and then went on, failing to conquer a single level.” It’s fair to say he struggled with the title: he floundered in jumping and dashing to a high platform in the opening section; bumped into enemies running towards him once he got into the actual game; and then fell down a hole to his death.

The Daily Caller journalist Ian Miles Cheong then decided to highlight a section of the video and attach this to the following tweet: “Game journalists are incredibly bad at video games. It’s painful to watch this. How do they think they’re qualified to write about games?” His message has since received around 1,500 replies covering not only Takahashi’s lack of skill, but condemnation of video game journalism as a whole.

In a follow-up article on VentureBeat on 08 September 2017, Takahashi wrote: “Before [Cheong] got to it, my video had maybe 10,000 views. Afterward, the Gamergaters, or hard reactionaries – or whatever we would like to call them – believed this narrative fit into their views about game journalists just fine. They called for my head. They said I should f**k myself. I should be fired. I had brain damage. I was retarded. I should kill myself.”

Cheong then countered with his own response on The Daily Caller later that day, stating: “Just as sports journalists don’t have to be professional athletes, game journalists don’t have to be esports champions. Such expectations are unreasonable, and the only ones making that claim are game journalists upset that one of their own was made fun of by yours truly earlier this week.”

We’re playing video games, not ping-pong

So whose side am I on? You know what: it’s actually not important. What I instead want to bring attention to is this pointless game of ‘ping-pong’ which takes place each time a new controversy raises its ugly head within the gaming industry. Both sides call the other out for damaging video game journalism – and all they succeed in doing is making the entire community look stupid. For example:

  • Round one: Takahashi publishes a video of himself playing Cuphead badly in what was, in his own words, a post which was ‘intended to be funny’ and ‘not a serious review’. Cheong then posts a delayed reaction over a week later by tweeting this evidence that game journalists are bad at video games, and therefore should think they’re qualified to write about them.
  • Round two: Takahashi responds in an article and drags up past controversies with his claim he was used to ‘condemn all game journalists, raising the smouldering issues around Gamergate and its focus on gaming journalism ethics’. In return, Cheong publishes his own post stating that ‘facts aren’t [Takahashi’s] forte’ and complains he’s now being painted as a cyberbully.
  • Round three: popular YouTubers jump into the fray, declaring that game journalists watch their videos rather than playing the titles themselves; and their ‘lack of a basic level of competence’ means they’re ‘misrepresenting the game badly which is an actively harmful level of incompetence’. Once again, forums such as Twitter and Reddit become awash with hurtful comments and cries of ‘but it’s about ethics!’

    Video games are meant to be fun

    Video games are supposed to be enjoyable, yet I can’t see how situations like this – this constant tit-for-tat and all the vitriol that goes along with it – are anything of the sort. An open discussion about professional standards within the industry we love isn’t a bad thing and is actually welcomed; but when we allow it to escalate to such harmful levels, how is that in any way professional?

    It’s not the titles, their genres or the skill level of the people playing them that are the problem. It’s our own attitudes, lack of tolerance towards other and desire to take the humour out of our gaming failures that are the real issue here. Instead of creating ‘an environment that looks down on players who don’t conquer content at its penultimate challenge levels‘, we should allow everyone to play games in a way that makes them enjoyable for them (thanks Shelby).

    So to the games journalists, YouTubers and other professionals: grow up. You should be showing your support for your industry and those within it, not slinging dirt at each other in a war to prove who has the highest ethics and bring in the ratings. To the gamers, bloggers and spectators: stop allowing yourself to be dragged into these controversies. Aim to tear down the walls within our community and be prepared to constructively discuss your views with others.

    And to everyone out there reading this: get a life. In fact, get several. Go play some video games and get back to having some good old fun.