Friday, March 29, 2013

Feminine Aesthetic in Game Design

I've been thinking about how gender influences design and narrative style in videogames.

In my graduate seminar on Western-American literature, we discussed the book Borderlands: La Frontera. The book is written by a woman who sees herself on the border in the ways she defines herself: in her ethnicity, her sexuality, and her culture. We talked about how a writing style can be masculine or feminine (of course using very stereotyped definitions of masculine/feminine). Academic writing is, according to this theory, very masculine: it's highly linear, hierarchical, orderly, and institutionalized (in its publication, who can write it, etc.). Feminine writing is more circuitous, expressive, and personal. Maybe feminine isn't a great word for it; maybe it should be called experimental or expressionist. But I wonder if gender plays into it.

If you've read Anthropy's Rise of Videogame Zinesters (I reviewed it), it's a good example of a "feminine" non-fiction narrative style. It includes personal experiences, videogame history from a non-AAA point-of-view, how-tos and inspiration for making your own games.

Recently I've been playing Magical Diary. It's a scheduling-type game where your decisions and stats determine how you pass your exams and who your romantic interest is. You need to play through the game more than once to see all the possible options; for this reason I'll label it "circuitous." This is different from a New Game + where your character is stronger or the bosses are harder on a 2nd playthrough. There are a few conversations where you get to decide what to say, so I'd say it's also kind of expressive.

Recently, many personal games have been coming out of the Twine scene, many written by women (not that a man couldn't write in a feminine style, just that he often chooses not to). They're experimental, personal, and/or branching. So I think if I were to apply this idea of feminine aesthetics to game design, it would look like this (and I don't think any one game is completely feminine or non-feminine; just some ideas):

  • circuitous, non-linear, cyclic
  • expressive: the emotions of the player or player character are central to the game's "message"
  • personal: since many games by women are made by small teams or individuals, they can put others in their shoes in an eye-opening way. Think dys4ia or Mainichi or Actual Sunlight.
Aspects of masculine design could be the inverse... but they don't have to be. For instance, Oblivion is a very non-linear game, but its hierarchical quest and level structure are very masculine aspects of the design. So masculine design aspects would be:
  • linearity or being "on rails" 
  • empowering: the game makes players feel powerful or special
  • hierarchical: tied to empowering; a linear structure enables a game to scaffold the player's learning (like in Portal), or familiarity with an arbitrary combat system (leveling, quests, etc.). 
This ties into videogame publishing and feminist aesthetics. This article, in describing the background of feminist aesthetics, describes the fear as "the systems of representation that are available in Western culture are so irredeemably male that a woman can only be heard if she adopts a male perspective, if she speaks as a man." Since self-publishing is easier, women's voices are out there, but are they being listened to?

Otome dating sims, where you're a girl looking for romance, are kind of hard to find. There are a few good publishers and they're small. There are a lot of visual novels out there too, and it's kind of hard to find excellently written ones. Is it because the feminine aesthetics that brought them into being are fundamentally opposed to an orderly distribution service like Steam? Or is it because Steam (or other large downloadable publishers) only listens to women's voices when the speak "as a man"? 

There are other games that include many feminine aspects but are still masculine in their design. Take Portal. You're making paths instead of killing people; your character is a mistress of the void, yet you are carefully led through a linear series of puzzles. I think Tomb Raider especially suffers from this conflict between masculine and feminine design aesthetics, but I haven't played it so I don't feel like I can write much more about it. 

I'm trying out ideas here; is it silly to designate some design aspects as "masculine" or "feminine"? Or do you think it's a distinction worth thinking about?

I consulted this feminist aesthetics article when writing this.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Best games for coping with pain

When people are sick, they usually want a familiar distraction. I read about various games people play when they're sick, and they come from all genres. Writer Coombs says he likes playing Super Mario Bros. when he's sick, since he's played the game so many times and his muscle memory can automatically get him through it. For me that would be crazy. I can barely get through the first few levels when I'm well. Coping with a sickness is a lot about waiting out your misery until you feel better.

Games that help me cope with pain are similar, but require a more specific type of game to be effective. SnowWorld, the VR game that helps burn victims cope with the pain of skin treatments, focuses on total immersion. The patients wear headsets and noise-cancelling headphones. When compared to a game like Mario Kart, SnowWorld is much better at distracting from pain. I know that games can be a powerful distraction, and I think a game's ability to distract depends on the genre of game and the player's experience with that game. 

For me, the best pain-distraction game is Lumines. It's a falling-block game where the difficulty waxes and wanes with the soundtrack, and I'm proficient enough to play for 30-40 minutes before losing. I loaned out my Vita and struggled to find a good replacement game.

Tetris and Dr. Mario got too difficult too quickly for me to "zone out" to them. It made me wish that either game had a fixed-difficulty "endless" mode. I also tried out a match-3 game Zoo Keeper, which had many of the qualities I sought: it requires continual attention, the task is not too difficult and game sessions last a long time. However, as you level up, you have less time to find a match; it made me panic (it's otherwise a fun and cute match-3 game). 

I tried out some other types of games to help with my pain. The DenpaMen,* a dungeon-crawler where you sit around watching your Denpa men automatically fight for you, was pretty good to zone out to, but it doesn't require enough of my attention to make me forget I'm in pain. RPGs are pretty good, but when the story gets going it's like I'm reading a book, which isn't as... interactive? So I've been trying to play more puzzle games in hopes of finding a good "zone out" game. Any recommendations?

*listen to parts of The DenpaMen soundtrack here... it's cute.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Inspiring Women Game Devs

I haven't participated in Critical Distance's monthly Blogs of the Round Table blog prompts for a while, but this month is about ladies in videogames we admire. And um... there are a lot of women in games I admire. I'll start with developers.

Christine Love: When I played Don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story back in 2011, I was first impressed with the mechanics/story of the game. Then I realized that Christine wrote all the code and story herself (it's also where I found out about Ren'py). Which is awesome. And after that I kept finding more women who were making games that I liked a lot more than the puzzle-platformers I keep seeing (they're fun sometimes, I just like a little variety in my indie games). 

Deirda Kiai's Life Flashes By was another game I played happily (remember when Brainy Gamer was like "you've probably never heard of it" thereby solidifying his position as indie game hipster?). I was impressed with how the story inspired reflection on my own life choices. And after I played it, I found out it was designed/written by a woman. The quality was a little amateurish at times, and I realized that at some point a game can still be really good, even if it doesn't always look/sound like a professionally-made game. I mean "amateurish" in the best way possible.

Lively Ivy is another woman who keeps making games, and has been making games for a while. After I played a little bit of Spooks I felt like maybe I could try to do some pixel art sometime. It's inspiring to see how these artists started out doing smaller projects which eventually get put on Steam and stuff.

I don't actually know Bentosmile's gender, but their small games have inspired me too. I love how cute the games are as well as how they say things about the world. Things like "the attitude you have affects how you see others." I really like Zoe Quinn's games too. Even the small ones.

Speaking of niche genres, I was so happy when I found Hanako Games. I felt like there were other people who liked simulation games and games with lots of story. I just found out that Georgina Bensley pretty much runs Hanako Games and... that's awesome. I loved Long Live the Queen and the demos of the other games. I'm so glad these genres aren't dying out.

Around the time I started going on Twitter last year, I read Anna Anthropy's book about how anyone can make a videogame. It inspired me to make a simple and stupid game in Stencyl, and then another game in Twine. It helped me feel like even if I couldn't make a really professional game, making a game is still worthwhile. It's kind of like how I cook all the time even though I'm not a professional chef. You don't need a food license to cook for yourself, and you don't need a degree in computer science to make a fun or stupid game. 

My older sister Andrea is also an inspiration to me. She made a math game on her graphing calculator for me when I was a kid, which was basically Data from Star Wars: TNG asking me math facts. She helps me feel like programming is something I can do if I sit down and think about it. You know, the logic of "well my sibling did it so I should be able to do it too." She also made a choose-your-own hypertext adventure game about a spaceship that I can't find anymore (maybe it was someone else?). She has written her own murder-mystery parties, and she and her husband made a mod for Neverwinter Nights. Oh, and she and I are making a videogame together about newlyweds colonizing a planet (I just help a little with writing). 

It's not just one woman making games who has inspired me. It's how multiple women have successfully made games that I really like, and how they keep doing it, even though their games have kind of a niche audience. So... thank you, women making games! You inspire me.