Romancing the silicon wafer

Kim Moss recently penned an article here at Nightmare Mode entitled “You Know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guys™ In Games With Romance Options.” In it, she makes a brief comparison between the capitalist lens through which “NiceGuys” view real-life relationships and the way BioWare romance arcs work. Reading it, I couldn’t help but be struck by the superficiality of the examination. To me, the entire article could have been summarised into a couple sentences, which would have served as a an introduction to a much more involved exploration of why the relationships are depicted in this way, and what alternatives might exist.

I do not disagree with the comparison Moss is drawing between these so-called NiceGuys who feel that kindness is a kind of investment in future sex, and the way BioWare depicts romantic relationships. However, I feel the article ignores significant factors that are, in the end, much more interesting to the study of games. I have written before about very closely related issues, but it was in an academic conference paper in which I use words like ‘agon’ and ‘autotellic’ so is probably not something many people have actually read, so I will probably have to go back to basics here.

Firstly, games are patterns built out of rules. This is the framework that players learn to manipulate to their advantage, whether the goal is a dead enemy, a higher level, or a sex scene. There is no difference, in that sense, between rendering a sexual relationship and the process of learning a skill. Both are mathematical approximations of experiences inspired by real-world process, and neither are entirely representative. That is, in the real world, we don’t gain “levels” of skill which unlock discreet abilities: I don’t practice making pancakes until I suddenly have the ability to make a perfectly-formed souffle. Instead, I make a bunch of souffles badly and they gradually get better.

This fact is underappreciated by Moss in her piece, and leads her to advocate for solutions to the NiceGuy problem that would, in the end, lead to a very similar outcome. Moss suggests that a potential romantic interest could be influenced by the character creation process, “Sorry… you look too much like my dad.” Or a female character could turn down any male player-character regardless of appearance or behaviour, for hopefully obvious reasons. Alternately, the NPC could have concerns about the player’s behaviour during a mission, which leads to misgivings and a failed romance.

All of these are fine suggestions, but seem to miss the point that they can all be strategized towards just as effectively as the BioWare conversation trees can be currently. This is simply a longer list of “If, then” case statements than BioWare currently employ.

What I can say about Moss’ recommendations, and perhaps this was her intention, is that these key variables seem to encompass a wider tract of the player-character’s “life.” That is, the player’s behaviour throughout gameplay is important to the romance algorithm, not only during a conversation with the potential love-interest. If this was Moss’ aim, then it is a good one, even if it only addresses the problem up to a certain point.

Turning now to Moss’ address of relationships more generally, she says: “Relationships, especially romantic ones, are weird and complicated.”  “The reasons for a relationship to not work out are limitless,” and “Sometimes people aren’t interested in others. Sometimes small differences make people incompatible. Sometimes people aren’t ready for a relationship.”

Obviously this is all true. But Mass Effect isn’t about “relationships” or “people.” It is about Shepard, Ashley, Kaiden, Jack, Liara, and the rest of the crew. Them, not everyone. Their relationships, not all relationships.

Focusing on Ashley as an example, consider her as a character for a moment. Compare her to Juliet, who will, no matter how many times one reads the play, will always fall in love with Romeo, will always be tragically, romantically, dead by the end. By comparison, Ashley is a far more powerful entity. Ashley will say yes to Shepard, indeed, but she can also say no. The confrontation between Shepard, Liara, and whoever the third angle of the triangle is a remarkable experience. The player is put on the spot, forced to choose. While not an outright rejection, the player must concede–he is not all-powerful. Ashley has a decision-making capability that literally no other medium can offer her. So, as a character, she is more powerful than every strong woman ever written in the most progressive novel.*

Videogames create the potential for rejection just as much as the opportunity to get laid. What Moss, and others I’m sure, overlook is the disciplining effect of videogames. One can view their playable nature as empowering, but simultaneously, the game is forcing the player to behave in a certain way. There is literally no other way to achieve that particular goal–the player must abide by Ashley (or Jack’s, or Miranda’s or whoever…) terms. One is reminded of the flows of power, Foucault’s approach to power and discipline which are at once empowering and oppressive. The same structures which restrict the player’s behaviour are responsible for allowing action in the first place.

The single biggest hurdle to this entire area of game design and game playing is player prescience. That is, foreknowledge of how the game works. On one hand, players of games of all kinds really need to know how things work in order to advance. You need to know that you can’t pick up the ball in soccer, you need to know the difference between a sniper rifle and a shotgun, etc. You need to know that you’re trying to “win hands” in poker, or put a ball in a hoop in basketball, or hold territory in king of the hill. There are single-player games where some pleasure arises in discovering a new skill (or unlocking one) but those are then utilised, as a known quantity to perform tasks later on. The pleasure in games is, at least partly, in mastering skills which are increasingly known quantities, in order to advance towards goals which are similarly unambiguous.

In dramatic media, however, much of the pleasure arises from unknown quantities. The story progresses to gradually reveal “what happens.” We may make predictions, and either be affirmed in our knowledge or pleasantly surprised. We may fear a possible outcome, and hope for another, and eventually we find out. Sometimes this isn’t true, there are dramas which end ambiguously, and the pleasure in those is in deciding for oneself what has happened, or in simply weighing up the possibilities.

When we combine these two pleasures in cases like a BioWare romance arc, there are difficulties. I’ve mentioned several times the notion that a player can strategize towards the sex scene–something Moss and I are both critical of. The only way that can happen, though, is if the player knows that the sex scene can happen. If a genuinely naive player were to work through Mass Effect for the first time, how can he be said to be strategizing towards a goal he doesn’t know is there?
In comparing real life romance to a BioWare arc, the flaw is not that BioWare’s arcs are based on rules, but that those rules are eminently knowable. It stands to reason that real life relationships can be explained through “If, then” type statements as well, a great many of them for sure, but the important part is that they aren’t all known ahead of time (probably not even to the person to whom they belong).  The offensive part of the NiceGuy treatment is not so much in the “if I do X then Y will be the result,” but that any given rule can be generalised and thought to apply to all women, in all cases, and are equally true for all men, regardless of other factors (rules…) about things other than their behaviour during courtship rituals.

Returning to my earlier point: Moss recommends a number of interesting alternatives or addendums, but these are still rules that can be known. An experienced player could still post an unambiguous walkthrough on the internet, saying “Hey guys if you wanna score with Lady Hotness, this is what you have to do. The sex scene is totally rad!”
To address this issue, developers would have to actively frustrate this kind of collective strategising. That is, they will have to make their characters less predictable. I can envision semi-random, procedural assemblies of those If, then case statements being reorganised on each player’s launch of a new game, so that in one playthrough of Mass Effect, Jack likes one thing, but in another, she likes something totally different.

However, the huge problem with that solution is characterisation–it flies out the window. Videogames aren’t the only media that relies on rules, as much as theorists like to claim. Indeed, ‘characterisation’ is really a fancy, qualitative way of talking about the rules of a given character’s personality. What ‘would’ Hamlet do in this situation? That is simply another way of saying “if, then.”

The difficulty in BioWare games is that because the player-character is a variable quantity, it damages the sense of characterisation in the NPCs as well, even without the above-mentioned randomisation. The notion of “Shepsexual” is an apt term to describe the uncomfortable way that, regardless of who Shepard is in any given instance, the NPCs will always find him attractive. I’ve suggested in my academic work that the only way to interpret this situation in dramatic terms is that for each playthrough, not only is Shepard a different character, but so are the NPCs. That is, one cannot use knowledge from a previous playthrough to interpret events in the current one. The fact that Liara romanced a male Shepard last week has no bearing on the fact that she is interested in a female Shepard this week. But this is easier in theory than in practice.

Eventually, though, I assign responsibility for this to the player, and not to the game. There is no force we can apply that will coerce every player into appreciating all the nuances of a romance plot if all they want to do is watch a sex scene. Likewise, there is nothing that stops film viewers from copying down timecodes and fast-forwarding a genuinely romantic film to the point where the characters get their gear off. The fact that audiences can focus on what they want to, and ignore the rest, is not the fault of the medium. If Moss, or other players of Mass Effect interpret the experience of listening to Ashley talk about her family and daddy issues as nothing more than a necessary grind in order to access the sex scene, that is their prerogative. Others, however, can interpret that experience differently, and enjoy the role-play of someone who actually does care about what she has to say.

For some further reading, two conference papers on this subject: Canon and Contingency in Mass Effect (http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/ruchvhpaper.pdf) and Beyond Game-Fun (http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/ruchvpaper.pdf)  get a little deeper into the theory behind this post.

*Ed: I asked Adam about this, in that it ignores that Ashley could be an awfully written character and her ‘choice’ doesn’t erase that. He responds: I still have to argue that at an ontological level, she’s a more powerful entity. Yes, exactly power as the ability to choose. And if her programmed nature makes her weak, then how weak are all fictional characters who are all written? If this isn’t powerful, then there is no such thing. (She could be better sure, but I’m talking ontologically here)

137 Comments

  1. lol

  2. auntiepixelante

    make sure to print an MRA rationalization for every piece of criticism posted on nightmare mode from now on

    • ndef

      @auntiepixelante I was surprised by this reaction. Would you (or someone else) mind helping me understand the MRA reading of this post? I thought it was an excellent complement to Moss’s original, rather than a refutation of it, and I was hoping other people would continue to discuss the problem and the solutions that have been proposed.

      • ndef

        @auntiepixelante Re-reading the piece again, I do see a lot of critical language (“superficiality,” “much more interesting”) that creates an uncomfortably confrontational tone. I do think the ideas he’s proposing really are aligned with Moss’s article, though.

  3. i’m going to pretend this is the Bizarro World episode of Nightmare Mode where we wake up tomorrow and are like WHEW IT SURE WOULD BE AWFUL TO LIVE IN THAT WORLD

    • auntiepixelante

      @Porpentine whoops, we just forgot to uninstall the thing that lets manboy gamers have the last word whenever a woman criticizes their sacred franchise. it comes equipped with all websites. this won’t happen again.

      • @auntiepixelante @Porpentine It’s frustrating whenever commenters use snide remarks and baseless labeling but forget the actually offer any counter-argument to the piece. Maybe there is a thing a forgot to uninstall that prevent people from trying to dismiss a piece based on things alien to it.

        • auntiepixelante

          @frpcordeiro   @Porpentine here’s the counter-argument to the piece: http://nightmaremode.net/2012/12/you-know-whats-gross-we-play-nice-guys-in-so-many-games-23896/

        • @auntiepixelante How the hell one consider the original objection as an objection to the objection of the original objection without introducing any new objections? I asked for an argument, not a contradiction. If I wanted to see one person repeating “yes!” while the other repeats “no'” I would go to my nephew’s kindergarten.

        • @frpcordeiro  @auntiepixelante Okay, fair point, how the hell can one consider the original objection as an objection to the objection of the original objection without introducing any new objections if the original objection to the objection is an objection of the objection in response to the new objection objectifying the object of the objection objectively objecting to the original objection one direction in the sense that we objectify the original objection of the objection?

        • auntiepixelante

          @Porpentine  @frpcordeiro I HAVE AN OBJECTIFICATION!

        • @Porpentine @auntiepixelante It’s at “objection” #8 that you got it wrong. Unless Moss used a time machine to post her piece after reading what the respone to it was going to be, it won’t work that way.
          Not that you guys seem to care. I should turn that thing for the site to stop receiving spam comments back on.

        • SeeBeeWhitman

          @phoenixashes  Dude, not cool.

        • @phoenixashes @Porpentine @auntiepixelante That’s what pissed me off. Adam’s article focuses almost entirely in a game design perspective. It sidesteps almost the entirely the NiceGuy debate (in fact, it agrees with it) in order to focus only at the solution. Not cool indeed.

        • SeeBeeWhitman

          @frpcordeiro@phoenixashes@Porpentine@auntiepixelante  No, I mean saying ”
          Didn’t you know? This is a queer opinion only zone. Anything else will be reduced to manbaby MRA, regardless of content.” is not cool.

        • SeeBeeWhitman

          @frpcordeiro  @phoenixashes  @Porpentine  @auntiepixelante And yeah, the article sidesteps the NiceGuy debate (the entire point of the original), in as much as it doesn’t actually address anything from the original article more than to say “that’s not how we talk about these issues in academia.” I.e., “Honey, men are talking.”

        • @SeeBeeWhitman It does. In fact, I got the feeling it agreed with it. What Adams seems to be concerned about is the solution. As long as the player as able to know about the conditions (including the new ones suggested by Moss), her solution won’t work. I don’t see what’s giving you the “men are talking” impression though.

        • phoenixashes

          @SeeBeeWhitman You’re right. It really wasn’t a cool thing to say. My desire to be pithy should never come above keeping this a welcoming forum for discussion.

  4. blablabla i have a useless degree and i need to preserve my dinosaur body of gatekeeping knowledge blablabla mansplaining

    • @Porpentine blablabla i disagree with something but i have no skillset for a legitimate response so i’m going to act like i’m 12 blablabla

  5. ScottMadin

    @auntiepixelante Fair And Balanced

  6. aliendovecote

    @auntiepixelante that’s why they call it nightmare mode

  7. xMattieBrice

    @auntiepixelante what the fuck is that guy doing on there UGGGGH

  8. soycamo

    @auntiepixelante I get the feeling this guy is very narrowly focused and takes things literally.

    • auntiepixelante

      @soycamo someone like that? in games culture??

      • soycamo

        @auntiepixelante I’m suddenly really happy I stopped reading anything about vidja games after 8th grade :)

  9. SeeBeeWhitman

    Focusing on the ontology for novels vs. games is SUCH a red herring, given how little the ontic facts of a book’s characters’ actions being predetermined actually matters. Literally no one reads books that way. Within the fiction, characters have agency, even if their choices are fixed on the page (Bakhtin).
     
    The problem here is that you’re drawing a comparison no one would ever, in practice, make. 
     
    Kim’s gripe, if I understand her correctly, is that while Ashley is presented as choosing her relationship with the player, in actual fact her choices are always delimited by the player’s intentional choices. Real life does not work this way. Good novels, within the fiction, do not work this way. It is, however, as Kim points out, exactly the way PUAs view their relationships with women, like they are in the driver’s seat the whole time. Women in the game actually really are what misogynists only believe women to be.
     
    You don’t seem to address this. It has nothing to do with the algorithm being gameable on any level (just gameable on that specific level), and certainly nothing to do with the fact that characters’s actions in novels are ontologically fixed. It seems like the major problem you have with Kim’s article is just that it isn’t in your academic tradition, and that your tools are no good here.

    • ndef

      @SeeBeeWhitman Thanks for leaving this comment. I’m not sure I agree that this post fails to address the problem entirely. Specifically, I think that the idea of non-deterministic relationships as a way to combat the player’s incentive to game the algorithm is very interesting. Obviously that’s not a perfect or total solution, either; I think there’s a lot more room for conversation around this topic.
       
      Nonetheless, you brought up some excellent points that I do agree with, and helped me understand the criticism that I’m seeing in the comments. Thanks.

  10. xMattieBrice

    @auntiepixelante I have an inkling, but. Either way, I seem to miss the problematic stuff since I tend to just read those on my feed’s stuff

  11. john_brindle

    I’m not sure is really productive. Even if there are interesting ideas in here, I couldn’t get past your tone. People would take you more seriously if you presented your thoughts with a better attitude.

  12. Wardog_E

    I think this article elaborates on a few interesting ideas buy ultimately misses the point of the Kim’s article. It also fails to address the very obvious problem in most romancing mechanics a la Mass Effect, that is, the fact that the romantic story is written as objective-based. While it’s true that it’s up to the player to interpret the series of events, what’s there is there. What’s there is a set of encounters determined by player stats and choices that culminates in sexual intercourse. There is no continuation past climax. If that isn’t the exact narrative of a Nice Guy ™’s and a PUA’s approach to relationships… seriously, that is the exact narrative of a Nice Guy ™’s and a PUA’s approach to relationships. Bioware’s writers could have written the encounters in other ways and added weight to the conclusion and by not doing so they left a very clear message regarding relationships and sex whether or not intended (which is obviously completely irrelevant to the discussion). I disagree that mechanics cannot be used effectively to alter the narrative, but I don’t even need to start justifying that when it’s clear the immediate problem is using the writing to alter the narrative.

  13. Wardog_E

    I think this article elaborates on a few interesting ideas buy ultimately misses the point of Kim’s article. It also fails to address the very obvious problem in most romancing mechanics a la Mass Effect, that is, the fact that the romantic story is written as objective-based. While it’s true that it’s up to the player to interpret the series of events, what’s there is there. What’s there is a set of encounters determined by player stats and choices that culminates in sexual intercourse. There is no continuation past climax. If that isn’t the exact narrative of a Nice Guy ™’s and a PUA’s approach to relationships… seriously, that is the exact narrative of a Nice Guy ™’s and a PUA’s approach to relationships. Bioware’s writers could have written the encounters in other ways and added weight to the conclusion and by not doing so they left a very clear message regarding relationships and sex whether or not intended (which is obviously completely irrelevant to the discussion). I disagree that mechanics cannot be used effectively to alter the narrative, but I don’t even need to start justifying that when it’s clear the immediate problem is using the writing to alter the narrative.

  14. The4thCircle

    @auntiepixelante I found it particularly interesting that Adam felt the need to state he was dumbing down his intellectual language for us.

    • auntiepixelante

      @The4thCircle dumbing is right

  15. andrewjlavigne

    This must be dark world nightmare mode.
     
    Adam, did YOU kill Rita?

  16. Wardog_E

    I’ve been thinking about how old-fashioned japanese visual novels approach relationships and sex and I’m pretty sure modern RPG’s are devolving. The first dating sim game I ever played was True Love (it was free). Believe it or not, that game had randomized events that happened between certain dates and even if you cheated it would be impossible to make some relationships work. In traditional dating sims, relationships tend to progress way past sex into a proper relationship. If it didn’t, the story made it pretty clear that this was so from the beginning. In a lot of scenarios, it will be your love interest who breaks up with you.
     
    You can probably find the exception that proves the rule and if we start introducing hardcore h-games into the equation we might have to look at more troubling issues. However, my rule of thumb is that when porn takes a more thoughtful and mature approach to relationships than your not-pornographic fiction, you’re doing something very wrong.

  17. isaackarth

    @phoenixashes Pretty much.

    • phoenixashes

      @isaackarth Academia! “Oh, there’s a problem I know how to read! Let me see everything though that lens!” Wait, that’s not just academia…

      • isaackarth

        @phoenixashes It may also be affecting me because I *think* his theory may not match mine…but yeah.

  18. isaackarth

    @phoenixashes Also ignores metacharacter.

    • phoenixashes

      @isaackarth Haha, I was totally applying metacharacter to his interpretation, coming up with analysis I liked more.

      • isaackarth

        @phoenixashes You need to write that paper so we can argue about it some more.

        • phoenixashes

          @isaackarth Abstract submitted to RAW, at the very least.

  19. charlesjpratt

    @auntiepixelante The latter post seems to mostly agree with the first; simply be offering more mechanically detailed solutions. Am I wrong?

    • auntiepixelante

      @charlesjpratt yes, but i am at the moment unhopeful of my ability to explain “privilege” to you

      • charlesjpratt

        @auntiepixelante Okay…

      • charlesjpratt

        @auntiepixelante Just to be clear, I’m wrong that the latter agrees with the first’s central proposition, or the more detailed solutions?

    • BooDooPerson

      @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante Kim critiques system as designed, Adam makes case that no matter what designers do players will fuck it up.

      • charlesjpratt

        @BooDooPerson @auntiepixelante I read: Ruch points out that the solutions Moss provides suffer from the same flaw that she’s criticizing.

        • auntiepixelante

          @charlesjpratt @BooDooPerson she wrote it as an explorative piece, he’s “debunking” her “point-by-point” because he objects to her making

        • BooDooPerson

          @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante But he’s wrong. “Let player be cheated on/get dumped/rejected”—these can be done without set precondition.

        • BooDooPerson

          @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante He’s interpreting her suggestions within known framework and says another approach would ruin the “game”ness

        • charlesjpratt

          @BooDooPerson @auntiepixelante Doesn’t he suggest as much? Just saying that it should be randomized or else players can navigate around it?

        • charlesjpratt

          @BooDooPerson @auntiepixelante I should be clear that I don’t entirely agree with him, but I didn’t think his response was out of line.

        • BooDooPerson

          @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante He does, and then says “and you CAN’T because characters.” Then explains how chars are fluid anyway.

        • charlesjpratt

          @BooDooPerson @auntiepixelante Not sure I caught that. Should probably reread.

        • BooDooPerson

          @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante Doesn’t acknowledge meaningful diff btwn “fluid char ID to simulate agency” (impossible!) and…

        • charlesjpratt

          @BooDooPerson @auntiepixelante But again, being wrong does not mean that he’s out of line in offering a response.

        • BooDooPerson

          @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante … “fluid character identity to stoke player omnipotence/id” (de rigueur!) One acceptable, other “ruins game”

        • BooDooPerson

          @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante I didn’t speak to that. You asked if he agreed with Kim and simply expanded—I say no he did not.

        • charlesjpratt

          @BooDooPerson @auntiepixelante Fair enough. Like I said, I don’t entirely agree with him. But that’s not really the controversy, yes?

        • charlesjpratt

          @BooDooPerson @auntiepixelante Hmm, I still think he agreed with her central thesis that these types of structures in games are problematic.

        • BooDooPerson

          @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante He comes off like a prick, but I’m not @101atron and don’t feel like engaging those dynamics today.

        • charlesjpratt

          @BooDooPerson @auntiepixelante But I agree that he spends most of his time on the points of disagreement. Which is probably more fruitful.

        • charlesjpratt

          @BooDooPerson @auntiepixelante Fair enough. I agree that he seems condescending, but it doesn’t strike me as sexist.

      • charlesjpratt

        @BooDooPerson @auntiepixelante This is because as long as players have foreknowledge they can pursue objective-based play.

        • auntiepixelante

          @charlesjpratt @BooDooPerson the criticism in the first place

        • charlesjpratt

          @auntiepixelante @BooDooPerson What indicates that to you?

    • BooDooPerson

      @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante There’s a pretty wide gap in their reading and approach, that’s just the most obvious one to me.

      • auntiepixelante

        @BooDooPerson @charlesjpratt there’s also an overpowering sexist tone of superiority

        • charlesjpratt

          @auntiepixelante @BooDooPerson The tone struck me as typical academic/bloggy sniping. Why is it inherently sexist?

        • auntiepixelante

          @charlesjpratt @BooDooPerson you mean beside the fact that typical academic sniping is inherently sexist

        • charlesjpratt

          @auntiepixelante @BooDooPerson Typical academic sniping is *typically* sexist, but not inherently.

        • smestorp

          @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante @BooDooPerson having two “typical”s there somewhat invalidates your statement.

        • charlesjpratt

          @smestorp @auntiepixelante @BooDooPerson How so?

        • smestorp

          @charlesjpratt @auntiepixelante @BooDooPerson “typical typical academic sniping” is sexist, but “typical academic sniping” is not?

        • charlesjpratt

          @smestorp @auntiepixelante @BooDooPerson The average bit of sniping might often be sexist, but that doesn’t make the sexism *inherent*.

  20. LittleSocrates

    @xMattieBrice Turns out that article is actually about relationships in games and not sexism at all. So enjoy?

  21. ckunzelman

    @ElPrezAU @TheGameCritique I wanted to leave him confused, Nathan

    • ElPrezAU

      @ckunzelman @TheGameCritique Sorry. 😛

      • ckunzelman

        @ElPrezAU @TheGameCritique yeah that is what I was talking about

  22. andrewjlavigne

    Sad facts: in a neoliberal society, an article like this is only to be expected.

  23. Kim Marx

    I’m honored you thought my piece worth responding to. I’ve only two points to make in response. I had considered the idea of randomized character flags, both before and after my piece went live. If I had explored that in depth in the article, I think my piece would have become about something other than what it was.
     
    My second point is that I’m aware that games do not accurately reflect the real world in a number of ways, be it how one furthers their skills or how one develops relationships. However, there is a significant lack in the real world of people who believe and advocate to others that making enough bad pancakes will let them make souffles, whereas the presentation of romance in games does, in fact, reflect sexist thinking and behavior in the real world.

  24. ExpBelieve

    @Fengxii I agree with the points but this is also a shit article. If you think points aren’t developed, build off of them, asshole.

  25. ExpBelieve

    @Fengxii And he’s like WELL IT WOULD END UP THE SAME of course it would idiot it’s a fuckin computer game not a fuckin’ AI

  26. ExpBelieve

    @Fengxii but even having some deviance and sense of agency would be better than what Bioware currently has

  27. BooDooPerson

    @Fengxii The dangers of spinning conference papers out into a “response” article. I HAVE IDEAS, LET ME TELL YOU THEM.

  28. ExpBelieve

    @Fengxii I also like how he’s like IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ONE SENTENCE, SO HERE’S LIKE TEN PARAGRAPHS

  29. Triplefox

    Romance is, as often than not, just another vehicle in literature, and I think that is a reasonable analogy to begin from in discussing Mass Effect. Sometimes it’s used to create the conflict and sometimes it exists to explain characters or major themes. Whole relationships can exist simply to describe a “force of nature” or “inevitability.”
     
    So my impression is that if there’s a criticism of Mass Effect’s use of romance here, it’s not with the specific mechanics involved, but the philosophical implications of how the game’s various systems work together. The main story of Mass Effect already provides a palette of moral decisions, and it puts emphasis on these decisions being big and meaningful. So the player (should) already be describing their world outlook through Shepard’s actions as a leader, and that in turn should play into the romantic elements and influence Shepard’s destiny as a lover, if not completely predetermine it. If it doesn’t have that influence and the romances act too independently, it means that romance itself is trivialized, a “skirt-chasing” minigame with no further implications for the main story – which is, more-or-less, what the original Nice Guy article describes. On the other hand, if Mass Effect were inverted – being primarily about Shepard’s relationships and not saving the galaxy – it would make more sense to flesh out the mechanics for romance into a complex, multifaceted form and have the choices there influence combat/diplomatic performance.
     
    (This doesn’t mean I think every game needs to be unified in such a manner, but the authors have to be aware of what is being implied when choosing not to unify the different systems and subplots.)

  30. Felantron

    @Daniel_Joseph UGGGGH

  31. Tobitastic

    This is pretty disgusting.  It’s hard to respond to the actual arguments being made because they are buried under so many layers of disrespect and prejudice.  The baseline assumption of that anyone critiquing this type of sexism in a game must just not understand games and need someone with a degree to come in and explain it.  This tone of superiority is drenched throughout the article as any perspectives the author disagrees with are dismissed without even being fully understood.Add to that the use of ‘he’ to refer to a generic player, the use of ‘he’ to refer to a generic Shepard, and it betrays an underlying bias being represented here.  Then the argument that a character who is attracted to either a male player or a female player must be two different versions of the character?  Yeah, because no person in real life is ever attracted to both males and females.  WTF?  Is it worth even engaging with someone who makes such assumptions as these?  Well, I’ll give it a try.
     
    First off, the original article draws out some very specific common sexist behavior which is replicated by the game (ex: listen to a potential partner and agree with them no matter what they say – even if you terribly disagree – and you will get sex).  Avoiding these common tropes would greatly reduce the problem, even if the game still relied on a game-able set of criteria for sex.
     
    Second, “If Moss, or other players of Mass Effect interpret the experience of listening to Ashley talk about her family and daddy issues as nothing more than a necessary grind in order to access the sex scene, that is their prerogative.”  Yes, the common retort that those who point out sexism are the real culprits because being naively unaware of it must mean that people are not effected by it.  This ignores the way in which media can encourage or discourage certain interpretations.  Additionally, when the game creates the real outcome that many people will adopt this perspective, it is not just a problem for such people.  It is a problem for anyone they date, anyone they flirt with, their friends, their family members, and even potentially someone who just says ‘hi’ at the grocery store.  Blame may not lie at any one source, but we start where we can to address problems like these.
     
    Finally, the author claims that such dynamics are inevitable in video games and therefore this criticism should be ignored.  However, it’s apparent that misogyny in this kind of a situation is a problem he’s only recently tackled.  Declaring defeat while others have been lodging such critiques – and making progress – in a wide variety of mediums for several decades if not centuries is incredibly foolhardy.  Feminist media criticism is real, and just because your degree didn’t prepare you for it, doesn’t mean that you can dismiss these concerns so easily.  You might not see or understand potential solutions, you might even make some valid points about the difficulty of implementation, but that’s why we have these conversations.  And right now you are not adding to the discussion or refining the ideas being discussed – you are attempting to shut it down.

    • @Tobitastic Kathleen Hanna is laughing at you.

  32. sinisterdesign

    @SeeBeeWhitman Ah. I actually think he makes an okay point, if a peripheral one. He’s just arguing for procedurally generated content.

  33. sinisterdesign

    @SeeBeeWhitman (Different from making the actual mechanics non-deterministic.)

    • SeeBeeWhitman

      @sinisterdesign That’s certainly a thing you can do. It totally doesn’t address anything in the original article.

      • sinisterdesign

        @SeeBeeWhitman I haven’t read the original article, but just on its own merits, I think it’s a pretty good idea.

      • sinisterdesign

        @SeeBeeWhitman It would require more emergent conversation mechanics, which I fully support.

        • SeeBeeWhitman

          @sinisterdesign It’s a design choice. It’s fine to do or not do. It’s just not related to Bioware romance dialogue being hella misogynistic.

  34. ChristianFratta

    Ok, after reading this and the three atricles related to this one, I am kind of confused. So help me out here.Aren’t both Ross’ and Ruch’s articles about the portrayal of relationships in videogames? What I learn from them is that Ross would like more variables to be taken into account (which I see as reasonable, in a “character-respectful” strive for deeper relationships) and that he/she despises the coin-op view of romance both in reality and games; Roch seems to say that ultimately all moves in this direction will be meaningless to the player who wants to achieve, for example, sex with a character (which I see not only as reasonable, but kind of obvious: there are so many people that *someone* is bound to only be interested in “teh scandalous alien sexytimes”, even if it’s only fox news). I also agree with the fact that randomisation in inherently inimical to deeper character, because we’re still not at the point where we can procedurally generate well-rounded characters with interesting stories.
     
    Now, the general reaction I saw in the comments was disgust towards a perceived “let me mansplain this to you” attitude. I can see how the article suffers from Roch’s assumption that the reader isn’t an academic, and thus he/she won’t understand long words (even if I’m more than willing to give him the benefit on the doubt on that one, as I myself wouldn’t know what agon and autotellic mean, at least without searching for definitions), but I can’t really see where he’s beeing sexist, except in his use of “he”  to define both player and Shepard (which he should be called out on, but imho doesn’t warrant such a negative reactoin. I’m definitely missing something). I didn’t really understand most of @auntiepixelante ‘s other comments (too much sarcasm, I still don’t know enough English to get the nuances:P ), so what am I missing? I really am at a loss trying to understand why all this shitstorm happened :/

  35. ChristianFratta

    Ok, after reading this and the three atricles related to this one, I am kind of confused. Help me out here.Aren’t both Ross’ and Ruch’s articles about the portrayal of relationships in videogames? What I learn from them is that Ross would like more variables to be taken into account (which I see as reasonable, in a “character-respectful” strive for deeper relationships) and that he/she despises the coin-op view of romance both in reality and games; Roch seems to say that ultimately all moves in this direction will be meaningless to the player who wants to achieve, for example, sex with a character (which I see not only as reasonable, but kind of obvious: there are so many people that *someone* is bound to only be interested in “teh scandalous alien sexytimes”, even if it’s only fox news). I also agree with the fact that randomisation in inherently inimical to deeper character, because we’re still not at the point where we can procedurally generate well-rounded characters with interesting stories.
     
    Now, the general reaction I saw in the comments was disgust towards a perceived “let me mansplain this to you” attitude. I can see how the article suffers from Roch’s assumption that the reader isn’t an academic, and thus he/she won’t understand long words (even if I’m more than willing to give him the benefit on the doubt on that one, as I myself wouldn’t know what agon and autotellic mean, at least without searching for definitions), but I can’t really see where he’s beeing sexist, except in his use of “he”  to define both player and Shepard (which he should be called out on, but imho doesn’t warrant such a negative reactoin. I’m definitely missing something). I didn’t really understand most of auntiepixelante ‘s other comments (too much sarcasm, I still don’t know enough English to get the nuances:P ), so what am I missing? I really am at a loss trying to understand why all this shitstorm happened :/

  36. ChristianFratta

    After reading this and the three atricles related to this one, I am kind of confused, please help me out here. Aren’t both Ross’ and Ruch’s articles about the portrayal of relationships in videogames? What I learn from them is that Ross would like more variables to be taken into account (which I see as reasonable, in a “character-respectful” strive for deeper relationships) and that he/she despises the coin-op view of romance both in reality and games; Roch seems to say that ultimately all moves in this direction will be meaningless to the player who wants to achieve, for example, sex with a character (which I see not only as reasonable, but kind of obvious: there are so many people that *someone* is bound to only be interested in “teh scandalous alien sexytimes”, even if it’s only fox news). I also agree with the fact that randomisation in inherently inimical to deeper character, because we’re still not at the point where we can procedurally generate well-rounded characters with interesting stories.
     
    Now, the general reaction I saw in the comments was disgust towards a perceived “let me mansplain this to you” attitude. I can see how the article suffers from Roch’s assumption that the reader isn’t an academic, and thus he/she won’t understand long words (even if I’m more than willing to give him the benefit on the doubt on that one, as I myself wouldn’t know what agon and autotellic mean, at least without searching for definitions), but I can’t really see where he’s beeing sexist, except in his use of “he”  to define both player and Shepard (which he should be called out on, but imho doesn’t warrant such a negative reactoin. I’m definitely missing something). I didn’t really understand most of auntiepixelante ‘s other comments (too much sarcasm, I still don’t know enough English to get the nuances:P ), so what am I missing? I really am at a loss trying to understand why all this shitstorm happened :/

  37. qwallath

    *cough* autotelic *cough*

  38. qwallath

    *cough* agôn *cough*

  39. Silvarin

    I do understand the criticism towards this article, but it doesn’t really help to bully the author away from this website. I don’t think he was deliberately sexist (i think you can argue if he was at all), but he did choose his words poorly.
     
    Anyway, my two cents on all of this:
    Years ago i played Mass Effect. I didn’t know anything about the game, except for it being the next rpg from Bioware and well, spaaace! Good enough for me. I liked the game and i “romanced” Ashley. On Virmire, she, ehhh, didn’t exactly survive, and i was a little down for a while. Nothing up until that point had felt cheap, i didn’t just “put coins in the Ashmachine” to get to the sex. I did not even know there was a “sex scene”. So from my perspective as a player, it was just talking and building a relationship.  (i am a man, so that may have clouded my judgement). But then i replayed the game and the underlying romance mechanisms became very clear. Talking to Ashley and Liara transformed into a “insert coin to have sex” game. And after the sex, it was over.
     
    That’s a problem and Adam Ruch doesn’t see it. He just focuses on the wrong things, like the limits of game design and playing the game wrong. Mass Effect is designed in such a way that it encourages players to go through the game more than just once. You can make lots of choices, play as male or female, etc. Because of that, the romance subplot turns into a NiceGuy script after one play through. A script that also exists in real life and a script i as a man am not very proud of. “Putting coins in it to have sex” is not the same as “gaming the romance”, as Adam Ruch seems to think. Kim Moss gives us examples of ways to game a relationship that wouldn’t reduce it to being a NiceGuy.
     
    If you want your game to be replayed, you have to deal with the fact that some mechanisms don’t work well if you play it more than once. Bioware didn’t learn anything from the first game, looking at the way relationships are handled in the second one and in Dragon Age. A guy-guy romance isn’t progressive if it’s just another coin inserter. There’s a whole world to win.

    • @Silvarin I love you. Meet the new bullies, same as the old bullies.

  40. Kimbo_Ramplin

    @apmd this is peak loony-tunes time.

    • apmd

      @Kimbo_Ramplin indeed. I think it’s time for justified sleeps. bonne nuit.

  41. Fengxii

    “Obviously this is all true. But Mass Effect isn’t about “relationships” or “people.” It is about Shepard, Ashley, Kaiden, Jack, Liara, and the rest of the crew. Them, not everyone. Their relationships, not all relationships.”
     
    ART DOES NOT EXIST IN A VOID. ART DOES NOT EXIST IN A VOID. ART DOES NOT EXIST IN A VOID. ART DOES NOT EXIST IN A VOID.  ART DOES NOT EXIST IN A VOID. ART DOES NOT EXIST IN A VOID. ART DOES NOT EXIST IN A VOID. ART DOES NOT EXIST IN A VOID. ART DOES NOT EXIST IN A VOID.
     
    *cough*  Yeah.

  42. Fengxii

    @brunodion I think it’s because he uses an academic tone put down and condescend on his audience. He comes off as rude and smug.

    • brunodion

      @Fengxii I’m not saying the article is perfect, but an academic tone is not used to look smarter, it’s a way to be more precise.

    • brunodion

      @Fengxii And I have way much of a problem with people jumping to the conclusion that he’s an MRA because he disagrees with Moss and makes…

    • brunodion

      @Fengxii … his point in an academic language. Also, the assumption that academic = mansplaning is problematic. Not saying there’s …

    • brunodion

      @Fengxii … no inequality in the field, but at least here at the UdM there’s a good representation of women in the field.

    • brunodion

      @Fengxii People are just so quick to jump the gun and accuse anyone who disagrees with them to be an MRA/feminazi.

    • brunodion

      @Fengxii Also make me weary of sending anything too academic there because the last thing I want is people calling me an MRA because …

    • brunodion

      @Fengxii … I like Bastion and talk on an academic level about it. :/

      • Fengxii

        @brunodion But that wouldn’t happen! People aren’t frustrated merely because by the presence of an academic tone. They’re frustrated>

      • Fengxii

        @brunodion bc Adam uses an Academic Tone to put himself on an imaginary pedestal, through which he assumes his superiority over his readers

      • Fengxii

        @brunodion Kim’s article was *very straightforward. “This is phenemnon in this video game. This is why it’s a problem.” >

      • Fengxii

        @brunodion And adam’s reponse is “well, it’s going to happen whether we want it to or not”? Like, that’s not constructive. The point>

      • Fengxii

        @brunodion was to point out a problem. A *social* problem. His response was a justification of that problem. NOT CONTRUCTIVE.

        • brunodion

          @Fengxii I saw it more as an academic explanation of the issue and an observation as to why it may be harder to fix than what she thought.

      • Fengxii

        @brunodion Academic Tone =/= Mansplaining, but it can when it’s introduced needlessly and in a way that’s patronizing and condescending.

      • Fengxii

        @brunodion I don’t think you have to worry about academia. NM is an audience that embraces and engages intellectualism. But that also>

      • Fengxii

        @brunodion means they can call out BS, even when it’s under the veil of an academic tone.

        • brunodion

          @Fengxii There’s a gap between calling out BS and calling him an horrible misogynist because his piece may have lacked a bit of tact.

        • Fengxii

          @brunodion I think that comes from the assumption that the motivation of Adam’s tone comes from Kim being a Woman, which I understand.

        • Fengxii

          @brunodion Mansplaining happens a lot in intellectual spaces, unfortunately. I think that needs to be taken into account, you know?

        • brunodion

          @Fengxii I know, and yes. But people flipping the fuck out is still people flipping the fuck out. And that bothers me.

  43. KCarMD

    @brunodion I know the feeling. I think the article could have been less dismissive, but squirm at academic = mansplaining assumptions.

  44. ibogost

    @adamruch what is the controversy, exactly?

    • adamruch

      @ibogost That I am giant sexist men’s rights prick academic invading the safe space of Nightmaremode with my terrible, silencing writing.

      • ibogost

        @adamruch oh. Ugh.

        • adamruch

          @ibogost Yeah. Kind of blindsided by it… getting over it now, but its been a very uncomfortable 24 hours.

  45. laevantine

    @BooDooPerson Can you mention which comment that’s in? Find in page isn’t finding it.

  46. Pingback: Don’t jump to conclusions – we’re complicated » Digital Spirit Guide

  47. Alysander

    My only real problem with this piece is that Adam mentions that he has “written before about very closely related issues, but it was in an academic conference paper in which I use words like ‘agon’ and ‘autotellic’ so is probably not something many people have actually read, so I will probably have to go back to basics here.”

    Some of us do know those “fancy” words- if you’re going to reference a paper, give us a link (or at least a title and journal if Its not freely available online).

    I agree with the bulk of your argument, but please give the readers of this website some respect.