Acting Without Acting

Though I haven't touched on it much recently in my writings, (aside from a few scattered comments about Super Street Fighter 4 on H. T. Parnell's) I've been thinking a lot more about some of the old discussions I've had about gender roles in games. The conclusion we seemed to come to, amid much discussion, is that there are two separate problems at play here:

First, the overall dearth of female characters in games, particularly ones that are portrayed as capable of engaging in the same activities as men with the same level of skill.

This strikes me as a larger umbrella issue that contains the issue of patriarchy that was brought up re: Super Street Fighter 4. Women are less common (in games) than men, because men are seen as the norm, so that the variation of including a female character is something that must be both explained and reigned in, as to not be too unusual. Addressing the overall problem may not address some of the co-morbid issues, but it's certainly a place to start.

Second, the overall dearth of emotional qualities that have historically been considered “female”.

This is particularly sticky, however, because by describing these as qualities as “female”, I am implying that they should be embodied, mostly, by female characters. Doing so would be the fastest way to solve the actual physical gender imbalance without actually helping the problem in any way. Not unlike trying to push for civil rights by giving a lot of work to Stepin Fetchit, and even then it'd probably be worse, cause there's something to be said for being the first African American actor to ever be given a screen credit.

Even discussing this issue is a little troublesome, though, because it's so easy to accidentally jump horses mid discussion, and to start discussing the specifics of people, as opposed to looking at platonic forms of female and male. That is, if you think that such platonic forms exist/are meaningful concepts. I tend to think they're helpful for discussions of narrative, but trying to prove that they are is clearly beyond the scope of this particular discussion. Suffice it to say that I believe that they are. Perhaps I'll diatribe about why at some point.

This issue is also difficult, because it's more insidious and subtle than the problem of “Over 80% of game characters are male”. This problem (as is the case with all problems of equality, if you get down to it) starts in the culture. America, and to some degree Western Europe (though less so) has always greatly valued physical prowess, self-determination, and the ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps no matter what, even so much as to be to the detriment of qualities like endurance, intuition, and being conciliatory.

The real heart of this second problem is that games buy into a mentality in which a "male" way of acting is considered positive, and a "female" way of acting is considered negative or irrelevant. This is partially because of overarching cultural factors, and partially because games in particular have always been based almost exclusively on these traditionally "male" activities. So, before we get too deep into this, what the hell am I talking about?

In the Jungian sense (as well as the ancient Chinese philosophy sense), activity is considered to be an essential male characteristic, while passivity is considered to be an essential female characteristic. There's a valid epistemological question as the core of this, to ask whether “not doing something” can be a valid descriptor, but suffice it to say that Taoism, for one, sidesteps this issue entirely.

Taoism, which focuses heavily on the interplay of gender as amorphous characteristics, largely detached from any instantiation, believes that the essential female characteristic is “wei wu wei”, or “action without action”. The comparison is made to water, which, while soft and yielding, is capable of overcoming virtually any obstacle, and shaping things otherwise thought unassailable, like earth and stone. Taoism submits that the universe has a natural order, and that by acting in step with (and being lead by) the natural order, not only does one achieve more satisfaction, but one is also more effective at accomplishing their goals. (As a purely academic concern, it also proposes that this is the ideal way for everyone to act, but still identifies it as inherently female)

I'm not here to speculate about the truth of this theology, other than to say that I believe there is some non-zero amount of validity to this way of acting: action based on sensitivity to surroundings, and non-attachment to the results of said actions.

Whether or not these qualities represent something inherently “female” is an epistemological gender studies question that I have no interest in tackling. I am much more interested in the relative lack of these qualities, and others like them in games. For lack of a better term, and wanting to avoid overstepping the purview of this article, I shall refer to these qualities as “wei wu wei”.

A previous essay I wrote posited that most main characters of video games are extensions of the typical male action hero. Gears of War, Devil May Cry, Borderlands, Left 4 Dead. Even Gordon Freeman, while more nuanced, is basically that archetype. While trying to gender these characteristics is probably a mistake, we can all agree that the laundry list looks something like this:

Physical Prowess
Willingness to use physical force in order to accomplish one's goals (usually noble)
Courage and adherence to goals in the face of overwhelming odds

Plus many others, I'm sure. Don't get me wrong; these are all awesome characteristics. I really kind of enjoyed that Marcus Fenix and his squad getting swallowed by a worm the size of rhode island occasioned no more pause from him than “Well, then we gotta cut our way out!”

But characteristics like intuition, social graces outside of the context of manipulation, sensitivity to surroundings, nurturing, and willingness to stay in step with the natural order (or even fighting for the natural order) are all characteristics that are all markedly different than, or, in some instantiations, even directly opposed to, the list above.

The problem, as has been elucidated before, is that it's pretty easy to make a game about “you did this awful thing to me, so I'm gonna beat up you and all your cronies”. Making a game about building relationships, synthesizing disparate pieces of information, or achieving success by gaining immunity to the throes of gain and loss of daily life are all... a little less unclear. I think a game could be made out of these principles, but no one can submit that it would be less challenging to create than a beat'em up.

Now, if we're discussing real life, obviously a mix of all of these qualities are necessary to be a functional human being, but this is not so in games. The world of Gears of War is constructed so that Marcus Fenix needs to embody all of the action hero characteristics to succeed. The problem is partially the characters, where no one is creating characters that embody these wei wu wei characteristics, but it's also that before the characters even are introduced, the game mechanics and the story frame success and failure in terms of your ability to succeed at those very particular kinds of action hero tasks. When you get swallowed by a giant worm, it's undeniable that the appropriate response is to try and get out. To do anything else would mean failure of the challenge set before you.

And that's just the point: games are almost universally about events to which the only appropriate response is to be an action hero. Just putting in characters that embody this kind of wei wu wei thinking wouldn't do anything, because they would be monumentally ineffective, unless a conscious effort was expended to make it not so. This isn't because the action hero is the baseline, and variance must be accounted for, but just because that kind of mentality is so ingrained into the game industry.

This is to say nothing of the difference between valuing wei wu wei in story vs. valuing it in gameplay. JRPGs have done a decent (or at least the best available) job of emphasizing the value of wei wu wei in story, but at the end of the day, 70% or more of your interaction with the game consists of you fighting people for the purpose of ending their life or preserving your own. So you're left with a poor choice at the end: do I have a final confrontation that doesn't reinforce the message (the value of wei wu wei), or do I have a final confrontation that the player cannot meaningfully participate in? Obviously, the stakes of the fight are greater than just preserving your own life, but if the final victory is still won by the action of killing the bad guy...

Final Fantasy 6 errs on the side of the former: While you are fighting for the preservation of life, and the ultimate validity of human existence, Kefka can't be brought into the fold of Terra's quasi-Gaia worldview, and so needs to be fought and killed for the safety of the planet and its population.

Xenogears errs on the side of latter: While you fight and beat the boss, the planet is still more or less screwed until Elly steps in, who manages to save the day, ultimately by forgiving the villain, and making him understand the value of her worldview.

So... how can the action of “making someone understand the value of your worldview” be made into an engaging game mechanic?


Orange Fell said...

How exactly is this essay different in substance from the one we had two or so years ago that degenerated into a huge argument in the comments? You are STILL going on about wanting to heroicize the "feminine" characteristic of not actually ACTING. In fact, having the characteristic of frequently being ACTED UPON. And I am still saying that if you want to say something meaningful about gender dynamics in the twenty-first century, Plato and Carl Jung are not whom you should be reading.

William said...

I think it's pretty much exactly what I was about in the previous post. What I've been trying to clear up here is that I'm trying to heroicize these characteristics, as you put it, but also trying to divorce it as much as possible from issues of gender dynamics/politics.

That's precisely why I made the leap to Taoism. While not particularly applicable to gender dynamics in the 21st century, it does do a very good job of capturing the constellation of characteristics I'm after, and am trying to note the conspicuous absence of.

Likewise, I also brought up Taoism because it does a good job of explaining these characteristics in a way that's more nuanced and appropriate than saying "activity vs. passivity", which (please correct me if I'm wrong) you seem to be objecting to. Lao Tzu seems to feel that one of these ways of acting is inherently male and one is inherently female, but we don't need to agree with how he characterizes them to make use of his categories.

Suffice is to say that there are two very different, occasionally opposed ways of acting and viewing the world, and video games have been, from their onset, dominated exclusively by one of those sets of views/actions: the one much more concerned with the subjugation of the surrounding environment.

Now, if you disagree with that thesis, you're welcome to, and I'd be happy to discuss, but please understand that that's the thrust of the essay, moreso than any specific issue of gender politics.

Orange Fell said...

The first problem you identify in your essay, the lack of female characters in media (here, videogames), is a specific issue of gender politics. You can’t turn around and say that that’s not part of your thesis.

I guess where I’ll start is your third paragraph, where you mention the patriarchy. It was brought up in the comments of the Street Fighter post to make a very salient point, but here you use throw it out as a buzzword and then ignore it. And how I can tell that that’s what you’re doing? Because all of the philosophies you bring to bear on your descriptions of masculine and feminine qualities (that’s Platonist, Jungian, and Taoist) were created in societies so STEEPED in patriarchy that it was the very air they breathed. (Seeing Jung’s and Taoism’s views on gender as highly complementary is not a very great leap, by the way; information about their similarities appears on the very first page of Google results for “Jung + gender.”) Maleness/masculinity was the default setting; that’s exactly why they were writing about what qualities they must have to define themselves with respect to that other half of humanity.

Now when talking about gender stereotypes and the institutionalized sexism in media and society, these are great places to start, but if you’re going to really problematize them, you first have got to see them in their context, and second. to move beyond them. That’s really what’s frustrating me—not just the return to the M/F Active/Passive dichotomy (although it’s irritating), but that it’s being revisited almost two years later with no discernable change of viewpoint.

William said...

Obviously this is a biased viewpoint, me being the writer, but I think you're giving this a much harsher read than it deserves.

The issue of the lack of female characters in modern media is an issue, obviously, but it is only a part of my thesis in as much as I am trying to point out that it is a closely related (I think), but distinctly separate problem from the one I am attempting to address here.

You make a very valid point about the idea of these philosophies/ways of thinking I'm referencing being steeped in patriarchy, but I think that indirectly reinforces a point similar to the one I'm going after: because male is thought of as the baseline at the time (and still to this day, though hopefully to a lesser degree), and these action hero qualities were associated with masculinity, then these action hero characteristics become the baseline. I submit that this has extended to games.

I suspect I am interpreting this incorrectly, but you seem committed to thinking that I affirm these classifications as having some metaphysical truth to them. Just in case, let me be crystal clear: I do not think these classifications have any objective, metaphysical truth to them. If they have any truth at all, it seems likely to me that it's because society has done such a good (bad?) job of imprinting them in us.

I did, however, say "I tend to think (these gendered characteristics are) helpful for discussions of narrative", particularly in reference to their conspicuous absence. I find this to be the case because it is simpler than going through a list of characteristics, and using terms like "wei wu wei" requires (as you can see) a massive explanation. Describing these constellations of characteristics as "feminine" or "masculine", I regarded to be an unfortunate misnomer, but also leagues more convenient than any other available options, given the complexity of the issue. I am beginning to question whether the fact that it's more convenient is true.

I guess you could say that my opinion hasn't changed significantly because I'm still unclear on why my opinion is a problem. My opinion (at least how I see it) is as follows:

1. There is a conspicuous absence of female characters in most media, particularly games. This is unfortunate, but is not immediately related to the issue of:
2. The lack of portrayal or negative portrayal of personality characteristics that have historically been labeled as "feminine" in games.

The only part of my opinion that I see to be particularly objectionable is that I have continued to use the word "feminine" to describe these characteristics, which is a function of convenience and to give historical context, and is not intended to reflect any actual affirmation of that classification as objectively true.

That choice of mine is certainly something that can be disagreed with (I, for one, wonder whether it's doing more harm than good), but I can't help but feel that I am being taken to task for an opinion that I do not hold, and don't recall ever claiming to hold (though my memory is bad, to be sure), because of a questionable choice of phrasing on my part.

Orange Fell said...

I am not saying that I think you yourself believe in some kind of Platonic ideal of masculinity and femininity existing on a higher plane. Whatever. I am saying, three times now, that the philosophies of gender expressed in Platonism, Taoism, and Jungianism are useful up to a point, but after that point they harm rather than help your argument because they are so outdated and sexist in so many respects. It's like if I tried to submit an article on the Letter to the Romans to a modern religious studies journal, but the only post-Biblical commentator on the text that I cited was Martin Luther. I would get laughed out of town because so many people have written on Pauline studies since then and the field's entire point of view has changed. Same thing even if I only chose sources from between 1910 and 1959. If you *really* want your blog to change the way game developers think about writing their male and female characters (which I thought was the goal of your project), it would really help you if you picked up some Feminism 101 stuff and gave it a real look.

William said...

I definitely agree that it would help the discussion and my argument specifically a great deal if I was more familiar with prominent writings on the subject of gender dynamics and politics in the media. I'm rudimentarily familiar with the basic concepts, but I've always been bad about background research and sourcing, usually attempting to build arguments on self evident grounds rather than appealing to other sources, even when it means reinventing the wheel. It's a bad habit of mine, to be sure.

Yet, your comment both states and strongly implies that my point is somehow deficient because of this lack of sourcing. This does not strike me as self evident. Not as strong as it could be? Definitely. Actually invalid in some way? I'm not sure I see that.

In the example you give, yes, it seems likely the academic community would laugh at your hypothetical article, but if it made a point that was not substantially disproved or countered in any of the current writings and research, it would be incredibly intellectually disingenuous of them to be so dismissive.

I'm not saying that my argument is bullet proof in such a way, but I am saying that if you would like to criticize the argument on the basis of lack of deference to current research, I would like to see the research that shows a significant facet of the issue that I am failing to address.

Orange Fell said...

OK, fine. Your points One and Two from the comment made at 5:10 pm are truth. In fact, I don’t think ANYBODY could argue with them. They’re more like facts than opinions. But anyway. I’ve said four times now that my problem is less with what you believe than the way you dress it up. In this discussion so far you’ve already admitted that your philosopher-approved categories are highly subjective, can’t be described without “unfortunate misnomers,” require you to distance yourself from them on a personal level, and overall just maybe aren’t so “convenient” as they first appear. That’s my point--the longer you use them, the more they damage rather than strengthen any serious argument you might be trying to make. And as a follower of this blog, I know you’ve been using them for *a really long time*, even though, by disassociating them from your own personal views, you admit that they are, in fact, deficient (or at least insufficient). In addition, by implication, there are are other approaches that could be more balanced, sensitive, and up-to-date. I would love to see you write about some of them.