Games User Research Summit Poster Presentation

This past week, I was fortunate enough to attend the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) as an Xbox Women in Games ‘Game Changer.’ I was able to connect with a lot of amazing folks in the video games industry, including the various researchers, analysts, and data scientists associated with the field of games user research. Since my own research in academia overlaps with the field, I attended the annual U.S. Games User Research Summit, held on the Tuesday of GDC, where I also presented a research poster showcasing the results of a gameplay experiment.

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Me with my poster at the GUR Summit!

I’ve elaborated on the pilot study results in this blog post, which highlights the implications for how female game characters are perceived by female players when the same character is portrayed in sexualized clothing or non-sexualized clothing. In a nutshell, the same character portrayed in sexualized clothing was perceived as more incompetent than her non-sexualized portrayal. This finding was found in an action-horror game where female users played the same level of the same game for 15 minutes each. Using the same game character within the same video game (and game level) helps to minimize any confounding variables introduced by varied gameplay strategies and enemy encounters, which have not always been avoided in other similar studies (e.g. Behm-Morawitz & Mastro, 2009).

The second study outlined in the poster utilized the same female characters (but a different set of female participants) and asked questions about the player’s self-perception following gameplay. Participants completed a 2 x 2 (sexualization x game difficulty) experiment. Before participants arrived to complete the experiment, they were randomly assigned to the sexualized or non-sexualized character attire and a casual or normal game difficulty. In short, no differences were found between any of the four conditions with respect to player’s self-esteem, self-efficacy, and body image. You can view the full findings (in condensed poster format), as well as my thoughts on the study’s implications, in the below PDF version of my poster.

 

 

Admittedly, this poster is a condensed form of a research project where I measured additional variables (e.g., user’s self-discrepancy; identification with game characters), yet the additional variables did not change any of the outcomes. As such, I focused on the variables most likely of interest to an audience largely embedded in the video games industry. If you’d like to read the full paper, feel free to get in touch and I can send you a copy.

Since the study produced null findings, I will likely conduct a follow-up study with a different game and different characters to see if I can replicate the results (or not!). Either outcome would be interesting to discover.

If you’re curious as to why I limited the sample to self-identified female players (which I was asked about a couple times at the Summit), that is simply because I’ve been interested in women’s experiences with digital games as part of my broader research agenda as a PhD student.

Citations

Behm-Morawitz, E., & Mastro, D. (2009). The effects of the sexualization of female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept. Sex Roles, 61(11-12), 808-823. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9683-8

Five Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Community for Women and Allies in a University Game Design Program

My Backstory

When I enrolled in my first game design class as a Master’s student at the University of South Carolina in 2013, I was one of only two women in a class of about twenty. The other young woman and I sat in the same place every day, sharing a table at the front of the room. It was great having someone like me to chat with every day, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit awkward or singled out some days because everyone else keep their distance.

After graduating with my Master’s degree, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Media Arts and Sciences at Indiana University (IU). I shifted by research focus from educational game design to understanding the social-psychological effects of games on players, as well as the socio-cultural underpinnings of the historic gender gap in the video game industry workforce. My first semester, I was graduate assistant for a course on the video game industry – unsurprisingly, only a couple female-identifying students stick out in my memory. Women in game design programs at public universities are still very much minorities.

In the fall of 2015, I was asked to apply for a position at IU’s Center of Excellence for Women in Technology (CEWiT) as the lead intern for a new special interest group (SIG) – Women in Game Design. At the time, CEWiT was starting up SIGs centered on various technological fields (e.g., coding, web design, social media) with the purpose of empowering women in technology. CEWiT was particularly interested in supporting game design, given the male-dominated status of IU’s program.

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Me with game design instructors Will Emigh (left) and Mike Sellers (right), after winning CEWiT’s Outstanding Student Leadership Award in 2016. Photo courtesy of CEWiT.

As a gamer and a woman researching games and the industry gender gap, I felt personally dedicated to the cause. The 2017-2018 academic year marks my third year as the lead intern for the Game Design SIG.

The Strategy Guide

The basic premise of the Game Design SIG is to plan and host workshops and social events that are relevant and of interest to women pursuing game design. In this post, I’m going to highlight five strategies that I have developed over the years in cultivating an inclusive community for women and allies in IU’s game design program, and how I believe these strategies have made an impact. In this pursuit, I hope this blog post will be helpful for other students or faculty hoping to spearhead their own initiatives to empower and promote women in game development programs.

Let Women See Their Peers in Leadership Positions

 While knowledge and the ability to teach are two important factors in selecting someone who can lead or assist with a workshop on game dev software and other skills, it’s also important to consider someone that female participants can look up to as a role model. For the game design SIG events, I strive to feature skilled and knowledgeable women who are eager to share what they know with others. By featuring female leaders as workshop instructors on topics such as video game art and game engines, the SIG provides role models for female students learning these subjects. This may have a particular impact in programs where the faculty are men or are mostly men, as it breaks the status quo.

The same principle applies when finding guest speakers. At IU, I’m fortunate to have ties with alumna such as Hasbro’s Jenna Hoffstein and Telltale’s Mary Kenney who have graciously talked to our students via video conference calls on their areas of expertise. The women in game development community is extremely supportive, and I have been able to secure guest speakers unaffiliated with IU simply by reaching out via Twitter or email.

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Me (left) instructing a level design workshop at CEWiT’s annual conference. Photo courtesy of CEWiT.

Collaborate with Existing Game Design and Gaming Communities on Campus for Social Events

 Social events are hugely important because they allow students across different years of the college experience to get to know one another in a low-stakes setting. This is especially true for women game dev students, several of whom at IU have expressed to me the struggles of ‘fitting in’ with their peers in male-dominated classes. Over the years, I’ve learned that social events (usually centered on gaming and informal meetups) have proven most successful when other game dev and gaming student organizations are also directly invited to our own group’s game nights. In the past, I have tried to implement “pop up” events such as a Pokémon Go meet up, yet such events usually struggled to bring in a large crowd. For any social gathering, not everyone is always comfortable showing up alone if they have the impression that they will largely be among strangers – even if the strangers are other like-minded people.

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A group of students dressed in costume for Game Design SIG’s Halloween Game Night. Photo courtesy of CEWiT photographer Erin Sky Powell.

By inviting other student organizations focusing on game design and gaming, the SIG has been able to host lively game nights that bring in a number of diverse students face-to-face in a friendly setting. I’ve found that students are more open to attending social events when they can arrive to the event with a group of their friends, usually from the invited organizations. While folks may attend with a group of existing friends, our community grows when they socialize with acquaintances and new faces after arriving.

Advancing Women-Identifying Students is Half the Battle

 A main focus of the Game Design SIG initiative is to empower women interested in game development. But exclusively targeting women-identifying individuals – who are already a small percentage of game design programs like the one at IU – risks missing out on opportunities to advance other individuals who could benefit from involvement in the SIG.

Initially, my perspective on creating events for the SIG centered on asking myself, “what events will appeal to women interested in game dev?” but over the years, my perspective on creating events has shifted to be more holistic, appealing to the broadest possible range of students in game dev. In addition to the above, I also ask myself, “what types of programming are needed to fill potential gaps in student knowledge – both academically and socially?” Asking myself this question, I have found, serves the needs of many women students in IU’s game design program, and also the needs of many other students who may be new and unfamiliar with the game design curriculum. In adopting this strategy, the SIG has offered accessible workshops that appeal to students of all kinds, contributing to a healthy growth in student engagement and participation.

“Feminize” the Traditionally Masculine Space of Game Dev

 Related to my previous strategy, I not only seek to create programming that female-identifying students, in particular, might benefit from, but also strive to create events that “feminize” the traditionally masculine space of game development. For instance, the game design program at IU can only cover so much ground in what it teaches to students, and the formal education tends to stick to game design principles, group collaboration on projects, and other expertly taught practical lessons.

Yet something typically not taught in the classrooms are issues related to work-life balance, stress management, intragroup conflict, and team communication – essentially, the many “soft skills” relevant to being a successful person and game developer. By partnering with our university’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and reaching out to expert guest speakers on such topics, the SIG has been able to offer events featuring a feminine-sensibility which benefit many of our students who may need assistance in these areas. Additionally, if we want to see more open discussions about crunch and improving quality of life in the industry, we need to inform students about these issues early in their careers.

Be an Active Ambassador for Women in Game Dev and Tech

 The most crucial strategy for anyone seeking to spearhead and lead a similar initiative at their own university is simple: never stop being an ambassador and support system for women in game dev and tech. The game design program at IU is still relatively new, and each year I’ve always been able to notice the handful of new women entering the program. As such, I’ve made it my goal to introduce myself to those new faces, tell them about the Game Design SIG and how they can get involved, and share the overall mission of CEWiT with them.

game-gab

A fun way of implementing this strategy is hosting a Friday social we call “Game Gab,” which succeeds in getting people of all genders and ages interacting with one another beyond the classroom.

It takes a good deal of effort to always be on the lookout for opportunities to reach out, but it’s made a big difference for our community’s growth and student participation. Sometimes, all it takes is one student to make an impact. At last year’s Global Game Jam at IU, I helped a young woman bring her game to life – she did all the art, and I did the programming in Unity using Fungus. She was so ecstatic seeing her artwork come to life in a game, that she decided to major in game design and now works for me as an intern in the Game Design SIG.

Unfortunately, not all college’s and university’s hoping to implement a similar initiative will have the support of a campus-wide organization like CEWiT. And I’ve also been fortunate that the faculty in IU’s game design program are incredibly supportive in spreading awareness, providing feedback, and helping to promote the SIG events. This kind of partnership is essential, and I expect many faculty and staff would assist in such an endeavor for their own university’s game design programs. A good place to start is to look within your own program or department for people who can help champion the cause.

Skillful or Incompetent? How a Video Game Character’s Sexualization Affects Their Perceived Skill

One of my over-arching research interests involves how the appearance of video game characters effects the player-experience, as well as how identification with game characters effects self-perception on social-psychological dimensions.

Last fall, I started a pilot study (think of it as a trial or test-run) for an experiment where college-age, self-identified women played a video game where the character was either dressed in a sexualized or in a non-sexualized outfit. Essentially, the pilot’s main purpose was to confirm that my experimental conditions were reliable, or to put it another way, perceived as consistent when multiple people did the study. Because I was interested in exploring the effect of a game character’s appearance on self-perception, I wanted to be sure that people would consistently rate the sexualized character as, well, sexualized, and that the same character dressed in casual attire was perceived as non-sexualized. Thankfully, my pilot study confirmed this, and I was able to launch the full experiment in January.

While I did eventually finish the full experiment in April, I’ve yet to actually sit down and examine the results (but soon, after I finish analyzing my character design interview data!). However, I did find a somewhat unexpected – but nonetheless interesting – outcome from the pilot that sheds some insight on how a sexualized appearance of a game character influences their perceived skill.

rodeo-claire

The Pilot Study

For my experiment, forty-three undergraduates played the game Resident Evil: Revelations 2. All participants self-identified as female and the majority identified as White/Caucasian (81%). The average age of players was twenty years old. Everyone in the study played the Story Mode portion of the game for fifteen minutes. Following game play, participants filled out a questionnaire about the video game and the playable game characters, Claire and Moira.

As mentioned above, the pilot tested whether my conditions were reliable. Each participant was randomly assigned to either play as Claire and Moira in their sexualized or non-sexualized attire. Resident Evil: Revelations 2 was perfect for testing these two conditions because the story can be played with either characters’ default or bonus costumes (the player can switch between Claire and Moira in the story mode, as they both appear onscreen at the same time). For the purposes of my study, their default costumes were used for the non-sexualized condition. Claire’s bonus Rodeo costume and Moira’s bonus Urban Ninja costume were used for the sexualized condition.

claire-moira-costumes

Left to right, top to bottom: Moira (default/non-sexualized attire), Moira (bonus/sexualized attire); Claire (default/non-sexualized attire), Claire (bonus/sexualized attire).

After game play, everyone was asked a series of questions about the characters. I wanted to ensure that the characterizations were consistent despite the changes in attire. The only difference I hoped to find in the study was for differences in sexualization between the default and bonus attire conditions (which I did find). In addition to several questions about the characters’ attire, both characters were assessed based on six adjectives using a 7-point semantic differential scale. The characters were rated on the following: attractive/unattractive; strong/weak; aggressive/submissive; violent/passive; skillful/incompetent; good/evil.

No significant differences between the two portrayals were found in terms of Claire’s and Moira’s attractiveness, strength, aggression, violence, and moral character. However, significant differences were found for Claire’s skill, in which participants rated sexualized Claire as more incompetent  (i.e. less skillful; Mean = 2.70, Standard Deviation = 1.75) than non-sexualized Claire (M = 1.63, SD = 1.01). This outcome was not the case for Moira.

This difference may have emerged because Claire is the main playable character who is capable of attacking enemies with a gun whereas Moira can only attack enemies with a crowbar. As such, most participants played as Claire for the majority of the time. The difference in Claire’s rated skilled by attire suggests that players may have deemed her sexualized attire as impractical for fighting zombies. This may have influenced Claire’s perceived competency as questionable given the game’s context in which a lack of clothing seems like poor judgement.

claire-rodeo

Costume and Context Matter

Although I was not anticipating any differences in Claire’s skill between the sexualized and non-sexualized attire conditions, differences did indeed emerge. What does this tell us? I think it stands to reason that the sexualization of female game characters as an expression of empowerment will not always hold for specific contexts. Given that Resident Evil: Revelations 2 is an action-horror game where the main characters are kidnapped and imprisoned against their will, seeing Claire in a state of relative undress likely enhances her vulnerability in the situation which could have an effect on her perceived skilled, or ability to handle the circumstance.

Claire’s sexualization had the effect of diminishing her perceived competency. Given that players were fighting zombie-like enemies in a run-down facility, her attire may have conveyed a lack of sensible judgement on her part. Given the outcome, I think it demonstrates the importance of considering how sexualization of a game character is interpreted within the context of gameplay. When a game presents a situation where a character is vulnerable and fighting for their survival, as with Resident Evil: Revelations 2, a sexualized appearance may influence whether that character is deemed competent enough to handle the situation. This is especially important for game designers to consider when creating a character they want to portray as skilled and competent, despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them.

Obviously, it should go without saying that a different game and a different character may produce different results. Furthermore, participants in this study went into the game ‘blind’ and were unaware that the sexualized Rodeo attire is a bonus costume not intended as the default attire worn by Claire in the game’s story mode. Her default attire in the story is non-sexualized, and it is a player’s choice which costumes they want Claire and Moira to wear in the game. Understanding this context, as well as enabling a choice of costumes, could also lead to different results. Expect more nuanced findings once I do the data analysis for the full experiment, in a few months!

UX Playtesting Analysis: Tori

tori-menu

Several weeks ago – not long after I returned from my first Game Developer’s Conference – I realized something important: I’d like to apply my social scientific research skills and knowledge of media theories towards games user research. I’m fortunate enough to be in an interdisciplinary Media School where I’ve established a good rapport with many of the faculty members in the Game Design program as an Associate Instructor and the Lead Intern for Women in Game Design. After considering that I had certain skills that might be useful to the student game developers in the program, I pitched an idea to Professor of Practice Mike Sellers: his game design students in Workshop I, the first major game development course required for all students pursuing the B.S. in Game Design, could benefit from UX analysis and thorough playtesting feedback. So why not receive a little help from a Ph.D. student eager for more experience in conducting this kind of research?

Prof. Sellers agreed that I could offer useful insights and a collaboration was born!

The first student game project I’ve playtested is Tori, a meditative music exploration game in which players assume the role of a small bird collecting sounds from a stylized environment made up of several small islands. I recently sat down with Joseph Adams, a developer on Team Tori, for my first playtesting session with Tori where I offered some feedback on general usability, discussed below.

Gameplay and Feedback

Currently, the ‘bubbles’ which represent the aura of sounds for different objects in the environment are all colorized the same – a pale yellow color. These sounds can be collected by the player and dropped, in bubble form, to a new location. The collection and re-placement of sound-bubbles is an integral mechanic of the game’s progression system.

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Collecting sound bubbles in Tori

I suggested that the different objects, and thus sounds, might be color-coded, so that when player’s drop these sound-bubbles in new locations, they might more readily recall which bubble represents the sound attributed to a rock, bell, lantern, or other unique objects in the world. A color-coding scheme might be integral further into development, as players will be tasked with dropping sounds in new locations in order to replicate a tune provided by a non-playable character, in order to unlock new islands to visit and explore. As is, the placement of bubbles that are all the same color, especially when the player is expected to imitate a tune using the collected sounds, could get a bit confusing. Currently, there is no feedback that identifies what object the sound-bubble represents once it has be removed from the object and placed elsewhere in the environment. Color-coding the sound-bubbles to be unique based on the object of origin could simplify the identification process.

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Particle effect on wingtips to signify increased velocity

I also noted that additional audio-feedback might improve player experience. Currently, when players fly downward, the speed of flight increases. This interaction is paired with visual feedback of a particle effect trailing from the tip of the bird’s wings – a ‘speed trail,’ perhaps. It’s pretty and conveys the message, but might be paired with an accompanying sound effect, such as rushing wind, to match the visuals and reinforce the feedback.

This particle effect was misinterpreted by a player during a recent playtest. I took notes, along with student developer Joshua Smith, during a session with university students who played Tori for the first time. We invited the players to voice their thoughts as they played, and a participant misinterpreted the ‘speed trail’ as visual feedback to signify when the bird is carrying a sound bubble. Thus, playing an accompanying sound effect (e.g. rushing wind) might reinforce the visuals as the effect of speed during flight.

All in all, Tori is a simple and beautiful game that shows a lot of promise for its unique aesthetics and features. I look forward to conducting more playtests with new users and discovering new ways to enhance the project’s usability and player experience!

Follow Team Tori on Tumblr & Twitter for more updates. Many thanks to Prof. Mike Sellers and Team Tori for collaborating with this video game researcher.

Waves of Consciousness: Global Game Jam Project

I don’t think I ever got around to sharing the project I worked on for the Global Game Jam, so here it is. I did the programming/game design in Fungus and IU undergraduate Autumn Almeida created the artwork. You can download the 2D game from the Global Game Jam page under the ‘executable’ link.

Waves of Consciousness is a point and click adventure that explores the levels between reality and dreams. A little girl struggles to fall asleep and goes on an adventure in order to solve her problem. On this quest she runs into strange creatures and puzzles to solve.

Source: Waves of Consciousness | Global Game Jam®

Announcing our 2017 @Official_GDC Scholarship recipients!

I am so grateful for the opportunity to attend my first Game Developer’s Conference!

I Need Diverse Games

We had a lot of applications this year and it was a lot of hard decisions but please congratulate our 2017 Scholarship Awardees. Thank you to Meggan Scavio and GDC for continuing the Scholarship program which gives 25 All Access Passes to the Game Developers Conference to organizations so they can assist with getting more people to GDC for a week of professional development.

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  • Nuha Alkadi
  • Rachel Bazelais
  • Richard Bottoms
  • Wren Brier
  • Diana Chaudron
  • Kate Dollarhyde
  • Charlotte Ellett
  • Colin Grant
  • Ariana Green
  • Jennifer Johnson
  • Crysta Frost
  • Masha Lepire
  • Joseph Lu
  • Trushitha Narla
  • Linda Nguyen
  • Lorien Smyer
  • Rejon Taylor-Foster
  • Jessica Tompkins
  • J. Tuason
  • Andrada Tudor
  • Jenny Xu
  • JC Lau
  • Taylor Ambrosio Wood
  • Dante Douglas
  • Rachel Hwang

Thank you to our review committee:

  • Tanya DePass
  • Bianca J. Anderson
  • Rami Ismail
  • Jane Ng
  • Glenn White

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There’s a Soldier in All of Us? Gender in Call of Duty’s Live Action Trailers

It’s said in life only three things are guaranteed: death, taxes, and a new Call of Duty (CoD) release each year. The imminent arrival of each subsequent installment of the juggernaut first-person shooter franchise is heralded by entertaining live action trailers featuring fantasy gunplay and celebrity endorsements. These short but bombastic videos capture the high-octane gameplay that gamers have, for better or worse, come to associate with CoD games.

Yet the advertising of CoD in live action trailers arguably represents the systematic gender-biases present in video game marketing at large, especially for genres that assume an overwhelmingly male audience, as often the case for first-person shooter games. Even prior to the development of the live action trailers, masculine themes that marginalize women and homosexual men were emphasized in other CoD promotional videos. Let’s not forget the time Infinity Ward released a YouTube video in 2009 that disparaged the use of random grenade throws in the game’s online mode as a phony public service announcement sponsored by a ficticious organization called Fight Against Grenade Spam, or FAGS. While the video was quickly removed for its insensitive language, official promotional videos with homophobic undertones clearly stigmatize minorities from the CoD online community.

15091-399365-mw3jpg-noscalePerfect soldiers? “The Vet and The n00b” specifically hails a male demographic.

Activision, the publisher of the CoD franchise, has consistently advertised new releases for a predominately male demographic at the expense of female representation. I genuinely applaud the original live action CoD trailer for Black Ops (2010) for featuring a diverse range of male and female actors engaging in fantasy gunplay. The trailer showcases a diversity of body types and ethnicities equally kicking ass in an absurd abstraction of both authentic reality and actual video gameplay. Recent live action trailers, however, are noticeably (and unfortunately) less egalitarian. Modern Warfare 3’s (2012) live action trailer started the trend in “The Vet & The n00b” which starred Sam Worthington and Jonah Hill in the respective roles of the “veteran” and “noob.” Their relationship, in which the veteran trains the novice player/soldier in CoD tactics and weaponry, values skilled performance as a masculine ideal.

15091-399365-meganfoxcallofdutyjpg-noscaleMegan Fox’s brief appearance in “Epic Night Out” might be boiled down to eye candy.

Indeed, men are typically active subjects in the narratives of the live action trailers while women are subjected to a male gaze that frames females as objects to be gazed upon. Actress Megan Fox was briefly featured in a CoD: Ghosts (2013) live action trailer titled “Epic Night Out.” While Fox is depicted as a tough, competent, and fiercely independent a male character blatantly flirts with her, emphasizing her role as a mere object for male pleasure. The men exit the scene after the male character’s unsuccessful attempt at chatting her up and she’s quickly forgotten about.

15091-399365-codawpng-noscaleEmily Ratajkowski in “Discover Your Power” is selling sexiness – not CoD. 

Roughly a year later, the CoD: Advanced Warfare (2014) live action trailer positioned a male viewership to “Discover Your Power” from the first-person perspective. While the actor’s face is never seen the hairy arms are noticeably masculine when the actor runs and guns across an advanced battlefield of the future. In the same video, the heterosexual male gaze is catered by the quick appearance of model Emily Ratajkowski, clad in tiny shorts and a belly shirt, after the character-viewer temporarily blacks out. The scene is used for humor when it turns out that the sexy visage is actually a slobbering goat – in other words, the trailer’s only female representation is actually a hallucination. In the world of Advanced Warfare’s trailer, power is the exclusive domain of men.

15091-399365-codblops3png-noscaleCara Delevingne’s role in “Seize Glory” is an improvement on the formula.

Fortunately, the trend of objectifying women in CoD trailers is shifting, if somewhat gradually. Actress and model Cara Delevingne ultimately dominates the subject of the narrative, a male character named Kevin, in the CoD: Black Ops III (2015) trailer “Seize Glory” but only within the video’s final seconds.Some women viewers may certainly enjoy strong heroines like the ones portrayed by Delevingne and Fox. Indeed, they are framed as tough, badass, and capable of keeping up with the men (Ratajkowski’s sexualized appearance more the exception than the rule). Yet it remains that these advertisements offer a variety of masculinities on display – black, white, and overweight – while a particular type of woman, who is beautiful and conforms to a thin ideal, is given enough time and space in the trailers to please a heterosexual male audience, first and foremost.

15091-399365-codghostspng-noscaleMale victims of CODnapping receive access to games, big comfy chairs, and beverage service in “CODnapped.” Women are framed as potential obstacles to accessing these privileges. 

A trailer selling downloadable content for Ghosts, titled “CODnapped” (a play on CoD and kidnapping), is the most egregious example of CoD as exclusively a “man’s world.” The trailer depicts a fantasy scenario in which several men are relieved of their everyday burdens by a clandestine military group who abscond them from the likes of attending a business dinner and shopping with a wife and baby. The objective of CODnapping is that these men might have uninterrupted time to play CoD: Ghosts away from their families and girlfriends. In this world, a variety of masculinities are interpellated as subjects while women are not even considered a group who might want to be “CODnapped” from their own mundane existence. Surely the women featured in the video – the female student driver, the wife and mother of a toddler, the girlfriend fussing over her appearance – might also need a relief from their daily pressures?

This November’s release of Infinite Warfare (2016) introduced a new live action trailer titled “Screw It, Let’s Go to Space.” While initially showcasing a number of diverse characters prior to the combat scenes, once the actual fighting erupts women appear far less frequently than men in the one minute and forty-six second trailer. The trailer is a welcome departure from objectifying women yet does little to increase female visibility compared to past commercials.

15091-399365-codiwpng-noscaleOne of two prominent women soldiers who appear in Infinite Warfare’s “Screw It, Let’s Go to Space.”

So, why is this important – why scrutinze gender portrayals in CoD commercials? Especially given the fact that many gamers no longer take seriously CoD as more than just a cash cow? Representation in any medium is always important given that as humans we naturally identify with similar others. And given the contentious status of women in online gaming communities, where harrassment and hostility is not uncommon, would it really harm the franchise to acknowledge women players more broadly, to represent women in ways that disrupt stereotypes? To consider the female demographic as more than just an afterthought? These trailers started strong with Black Ops, dipped to an all-time low with Advanced Warfare, and addressed previous wrongs in Infinite Warfare’s recent commercial – but there’s still room for improvement. For CoD to diversify the range of representation within the live action trailers would go a long way towards conceptualizing CoD as a game for the “solider in all of us.”

Note: Gender and Call of Duty is currently a topic I am developing and wrestling with for a book chapter on the series. This discussion was originally going to appear in condensed form in the book chapter, which is actually more specifically about gender in the Modern Warfare games and associated fandom, but due to word-count limitations and a desire to have this conversation more broadly, I’ve decided to share this piece in blog format. And a disclaimer: I acknowledge that I am by no means an expert on the Call of Duty series at large. I’ve only played Black Ops, Modern Warfare 1-3, and Ghosts.

Bros Before Tangos? Narrative & Parasocial Friendships in Military Shooters

[Spoiler Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Star Wars: Republic Commando and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2]

What’s a Parasocial Friendship?

A good story and compelling characters can provide players with a sense of friendship and belonging within a gameworld. Parasocial interaction explains that audience members may experience one-sided relationships with mediated characters. In other words, spend enough time with a fictional character in book, movie, or video game, and you might just start to think of them as a friend. I’m of the position this effect contributes to media enjoyment; in my case, I’ve found that parasocial relationships with game characters can go a long way to differentiate an otherwise generic game.

With the interactive nature of videogames, the medium is particularly successful at inculcating such feelings. Perhaps one need only reference the “Garrus Vakarian is my Space Boyfriend” t-shirt to gauge the level of attachment some players may experience with fictional romantic pursuits in the Mass Effect series of roleplaying games. But what about games where character roleplay isn’t an option? Or for games that emphasize combat over narrative? Can parasocial friendships with characters make an otherwise generic military-themed shooter more meaningful?

star_wars_republic_commando_wallDon’t let the space-marine armor fool ya, there’s a lot to like about Delta Squad.

In video games, such relationships are likely encouraged when a player-character shares a close bond with one or more characters. Military shooters often exhibit themes of professionalism, duty, and camaraderie between the player-character and their allies. These relationships, paired with gameplay that emphasize interdependency rather than independency in the military squad, go a long way towards encouraging parasocial friendships and empathy towards game characters. Importantly, this bond has implications for plot twists that disrupt the empowering fantasy of the traditional, first-person military shooter game. I discuss in the context of Star Wars: Republic Commando and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

mw-group#SquadGoals. The only Call of Duty cast that made me care about the plot are the Modern Warfare playable and non-playable characters.

Star Wars: Republic Commando

Star Wars: Republic Commando (2005; RC) is a squad-based first-person shooter (FPS), and probably the first FPS that I ever played and actually enjoyed. Admittedly, this gamer was already a diehard Star Wars enthusiast and sympathetic towards the clones prior to playing the game, but the excellent characterizations of the individual soldiers distinguish RC as particularly suited for ‘virtual’ friendship.

When the player assumes the role of Boss, the leader of Delta Squad, they give commands to his clone brothers Scorch, Sev, and Fixer on the battlefield. The player can position each member strategically to combat the enemies as a force. In my experience, RC is far more challenging when this feature is ignored as the mechanic emphasizes the role of the squad over the lone warrior. Importantly, when members of the squad go down for the count, the player can use a healing command to pull them back from the brink of death. Likewise, the squadmates can resuscitate the player-as-Boss, which enhances the interdependency of the squad. These game mechanics, which are fairly standard for squad-based shooters (Spec Ops: The Line also comes to mind), are paired with excellent dialogue between Delta Squad – usually incorporating humor to balance out the game’s rather grim tone – and emphasize the bonds among them.

commandosDelta Squad kickin’ some droid butt. Photoshop by me, render by n3rdskillz.

Boss: [player in need of healing from squad] Need help, commandos…
Scorch: All right, but if I get shot in the back, I’m blaming you.

Sev: Damn, I don’t believe it!
Scorch: What’s wrong, Sev?
Sev: I’ve lost count of my kills!

Scorch: [Sev shoots a corpse excessively] Sev, did that corpse give you a nasty look?
Sev: Rule 17…
Scorch: We know, always make sure they’re dead.

Good mechanics and characterizations help make RC, or what could have been a generic FPS set in the Star Wars universe, stand out. As a player, I was invested in protecting my squad, not just to win, but because the gameplay and characterizations facilitated a relationship with Scorch, Sev, and Fixer. And I don’t think I’m the only one, either. In a ‘Let’s Play’ video of the game on YouTube, a gamer tells Scorch to “hold on buddy” during a heal and makes other statements to the squad amidst a particularly difficult assault. While commentary is standard for ‘Let’s Play’ videos, the one-way dialogue directed at a game character indicates a parasocial experience.

The character bonds are intensified by plot twists that disrupt the power fantasy of the FPS and emphasize the vulnerability of life (virtual or not). The expectation for squadmate healing and the “we’re better than the enemy we’re fighting against” bravado is painfully disrupted in RC’s finale. Just when you, the player-as-Boss, expects a beautifully executed victory, Sev goes missing in action. Boss, stricken and devoted, attempts to disobey a military order from the Jedi generals to search for Sev.

Boss: I don’t care if they [the orders] came from Master Yoda himself!
Clone Advisor: As a matter of fact, they did, solider! Now get your squad out of there.

Unfortunately, shortly after this exchange – even though the player-as-Boss might start running back to Sev’s position – the gameplay abruptly ends and a cutscene plays of the forced evacuation of the commandos. It’s frustrating as a player who starts to genuinely care about your squad and the fate of your missing brother, and the loss of Sev packs an emotional punch in the otherwise tidy ending. My concern for Sev lingered after gameplay and part of me will always pine for the RC sequel to address his whereabouts.

15091-390212-rcendjpg-noscale.jpgRC’s point-of-view ending forces the player to directly confront Sev’s absence. 

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Modern Warfare 2‘s (2009; MW2) story is easily dismissed as a jingoistic military jaunt but it’s a big-dumb FPS shooter where the characters are generally likeable and the missions intensify the squad interdependency. Although you play as several characters over the course of the narrative, I argue that the most memorable missions in MW2 involve playing as Gary “Roach” Sanderson of Task Force 141, partially attributed to potential parasocial feelings for the player-character’s allies.

At first glance, your superiors Captain John “Soap” MacTavish and Lieutenant Simon “Ghost” Riley look like one-dimensional masculine archetypes: a buff dude with a mohawk and another dude who is so badass he obscures his face with a skull mask and sunglasses. But there is a good amount of dialogue peppered throughout MW2’s levels that facilities an understanding of the bond between these characters that the player might also experience. It probably helps that Soap and Ghost are wonderfully voiced by Kevin McKidd and Craig Fairbrass, respectively, who always convincingly convey the drama of MW2’s story (and damn if their Scottish and English accents aren’t bloody amazing). As an aside, solid voice actor performances certainly enhance believability.

mw2-soap-ghostCaptain “Soap” MacTavish and Ghost, the badass Brits. Photoshop by me, renders by BHD595 & 74540.

Although the gameplay of MW2 is not nearly as active as RC, in which you play the squad leader issuing orders, your mission objectives are integrated into a cooperative framework. The below exchange is just one example of the teamwork exhibited in the Task Force 141 missions. If you’ve played the game, compare how the dynamics change when you’re in the role of Private James Ramirez of the US Army Rangers, constantly following the orders of Sergeant Foley. The dialogue of those levels spawned an entire meme, after all (Ramirez, Do Everything!). Foley isn’t so much a friend as he is an announcer of game objectives.

Captain MacTavish: This is it! We go in, grab Prisoner 627, and get out! Check your corners! Let’s go! [Mactavish, Ghost, Roach and Task Force 141 enter a control room and engage the hostiles positioned there.]
Ghost: That’s the control room up ahead! I can use it to find the prisoner! I’ll tap into their system and look for the prisoner! It’s gonna take some time!
Captain MacTavish: Copy that! Roach, we’re on cell duty! Follow me!
[Ghost hacks into the control systems. MacTavish, Roach, and the rest of the team go down into the first level and engage hostiles while looking for the prisoner.]
Ghost: Alright, I’m patched in. I’m tracking your progress on the security cameras. [Ghost continues to provide remote support to the team as the others search for the prisoner.]

Not unlike the disappointment of losing Sev in RC, an unfortunate twist in MW2’s campaign disrupts the power fantasy at the same time it cinches a connection with a game character. In a harrowing mission to retrieve intel at a terrorist safe house in the level “Loose Ends,” the player is bombarded with waves of enemies. When the extraction team arrives heralded by the overseeing General Shepherd, the player-as-Roach must flee from another round of approaching gunmen and mortar fire, only to temporarily blackout after a near-hit by a projectile.

A cutscene interrupts the gameplay, the camera revealing that you-as-Roach are being saved by your lieutenant, who frantically tells you to “hang in there.” Gameplay resumes and you’re able to return the enemy fire for a brief moment as Ghost literally drags your avatar to apparent safety. Another cutscene displaces gameplay, as you see through the eyes of your wounded avatar as they approach the landing zone. Only the relief is quickly replaced by shock and horror as General Shepherd shoots Roach at point blank range, followed by the man who just risked his own life to save your avatar.

mw2_ghost_s_death_by_jailboticus-d6uzm4v.gifSix years ago I first played the game, and it still hurts to watch…

While this moment is one of the most infamous in Call of Duty history in terms of frustrating plot twists, the near seamless blend of point-of-view cutscene into gameplay that concludes with another point-of-view cutscene, as you see the final moments of your dying avatar from first-person perspective, is powerful in terms of narrative impact and produces an affective response in players. Just try to find a YouTube video of this scene that doesn’t include a “nnooo! ghost and roach are still alive!!!11” comment; those feels are real. Additionally, taking revenge later on Shepherd as MacTavish is particularly satisfying.

When I reflect upon these experiences of virtual valor in military shooters, there’s also a salient sense of belonging when the characters are convincing and well written. The parasocial bonds encouraged by memorable characterizations and engaging gameplay complement and reinforce the strong narrative impacts of RC and MW2. The unexpected disruptions of power fantasies, traditionally embedded into FPS games, are enhanced by feelings which mark the loss of characters like Sev and Ghost as  meaningful. While these stories may seemingly offer little of value in providing deep insights on the moral and ethical implications of warfare, I think they’re rather successful at illustrating the painful costs and sacrifices of service (even at the expense of absurd plot twists).

The analysis offered here clearly glosses over some of the problematic themes embedded into these narratives. Surely one could argue military shooters – even in the Sci-Fi realm of Star Wars – glorify war, support the military industrial complex, and sanitize violence. But that’s another discussion entirely. My analysis here assumes that games are played for entertainment and are usually interpreted as such by rational humans, and that along the way, it might be possible to consider parasocial friendships in games as something that enhance storytelling, even within usually formulaic genres.

Re-post:‘Through the Gates,’ ep. 31: Jess Tompkins on women in gaming

Indiana University’s Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President featured me on a segment of their weekly podcast, ‘Through the Gates.’ You can give it a listen on SoundCloud. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Tompkins describes her life-long enjoyment of video games and the gender politics that manifest in the game design industry and gamer culture. She explains that, in her early years, the sexualization of women in games “seemed normal,” saying, “I was being exposed to sexualized women in advertising, in films, long before I saw sexualized women in games.”

-From ‘Through the Gates’ official blog.

Can Japanese Games Tell Us About the ‘Real’ Japan?

 

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I’ve never been hardcore into Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs), a sub-genre with a large Western following, and I was never obsessed with Final Fantasy – arguably one of Japan’s most successful franchises to receive mainstream acclaim among Western critics and gamers. Rather, my own interest in Japanese games centers on the hack-n-slash, survival horror, and fighting genres. Among my Japanese gaming obsessions were/are Tekken, SoulCalibur, Resident Evil, and Dynasty/Samurai Warriors.

Some might speculate that Resident Evil is a popular and successful franchise outside Japan because its narrative is largely based around Caucasian, North American heroes. Even the diverse casts in Tekken and SoulCalibur are not easily recognized as Japanese in origin which makes these games relatively easy to market in Western regions. Even though these games were created by predominately Japanese development teams there’s not much that’s actually about Japanese culture within these games. Yet other games have inspired my fascination with Japanese history and culture, such as Koei-Tecmo’s Samurai Warriors, which may be true for other gamers who have played similarly contextualized games like Shogun: Total War.

Samurai Warriors features a cast of – you’ll never have guessed it – samurai, daimyo, and ninja warriors set during the Sengoku Jidai period of feudal Japan (c. 1467 – c. 1603). It was an easy series for me to get into seeing as I was already a massive fan of Koei’s other hack-n-slash series Dynasty Warriors (both games are developed by the same studio, Omega-Force, the difference being DW is set during a turbulent period of ancient China). Samurai Warriors, although featuring over-the-top gameplay and impossible one-warrior-against-a-hundred scenarios, more or less stuck to the essential elements of the historical timeline that it represented. Now, that’s not to say that the key players aren’t fantastically embellished nor that plenty of creative liberties aren’t taken. Perhaps most notably, the historical figures adhere to aesthetics found in Japanese anime more so than from the actual historical paintings that document their prestige.

Handsome and anachronistically fashionable bishounen archetypes stand in for fierce, heavily-armored samurai and Oda Nobunaga’s “demon king” moniker is taken more literately in these games. Still, if video games can serve as a gateway for learning about other historical eras, SW did it for me. I purchased books on ninja and samurai and read the fictionalized biography of underdog-to-unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Taiko. In my 11th grade Spanish class, we had to do a report of a famous/notable person and I chose to discuss Oda Nobunaga, the ruthless warlord who nearly unified Japan before he was betrayed by his vassal, Akechi Mitsuhide. These figures are well known in Japan – but to most Americans? Our mandatory history classes in public schools focus almost exclusively on US and European history. The exposure to new forms of history through games and memorable characters was a breath of fresh air, especially since most of the American-made games that I played at the time tended to re-tell the World Wars, ad nausea [Well… at least, Call of Duty used to do that].

When I visited Japan for two weeks in June, I took it upon myself to witness would I could of that history first hand. After all, even though it was gameplay and the overly dramatic characterizations that initially attracted me to the history in Samurai Warriors, it was the actual events and historical figures that left a lasting impression. At Okunoin cemetery at Koyasan, for instance, I was able to pay my respects at mausoleums and tombstones to many of the fallen warriors and rulers I was initially exposed to in the game series. There was a sense of wonder and nostalgia as I walked through that cemetery, realizing I may not have made the long pilgrimage via train and tram to arrive at that place had I not played a video game.

The same sense of awe saturated my thoughts my first night in Japan, when I skipped Tokyo via bullet train and stayed in Odawara. Most people use Odawara as a stepping-stone to a Mt. Fuji excursion but I stayed for Odawara Castle, a historic site of Hideyoshi’s conquest in Japan – and, you guessed it, featured in the video game. Beautiful Himeji Castle was also part of my trip for similar reasons and while in Kyoto, I tracked down a small, relatively unimpressive temple complex for the sole reason that it was the modern-day location of Honno-ji Temple, the site of Oda Nobunaga’s betrayal and death.

Perhaps at best video games are a gateway to other eras, other cultures, but I think they’re a particularly potent gateway. Having played my first Samurai Warriors game over ten years ago (the first one released in 2004 when I was 14!), the history has made a lasting impression that influenced my Japan travel itinerary at the age of 26. And while Japanese games might reveal only a mediated representation and understanding of a ‘real’ Japan, visiting and reflecting at these historical sites certainly brought me closer to understanding the authentic thing.

Click on the Images for the Full Photo Albums

Honno-ji Temple
Honno-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle