Thursday, August 28, 2014

Affordances and Feminism in Games

I'm currently reading James Gibson's The Ecological Approach To Visual Perception, which seems like it would have nothing to do with literature at all -- except you'd be wrong. (It also seems like it'd be boring, but you'd be wrong there too, amazingly enough.) Basically, this book applies early systems theory to visual perception and moves it outside the eye and into the environment in a very painterly, "what sort of things do we actually see and interact with" sort of way. In it, he puts forward the theory of affordances, which is basically that things give us opportunities or possibilities when we interact with them depending on their physical qualities. That sounds simple enough on the surface, but really there's a wealth of applicability there to things beyond just the environment, particularly when it comes to literature.

If we look at literature as an assembly of concepts (setting, characters, plot, genre conventions, objects), then it's intentionally made. It forms a sort of virtual environment for the reader as they ramble about in the story, following the navigational path laid down by the author but able to skip around in time as they wish. Video games are like this, but with even more observational freedom to the player/reader, because often there's a sandbox element involved. Even when one follows a tight narrative path, there's often room for exploration and interaction outside the main plot (subplots, NPCs, minor quests, walking around, etc.). The narrative elements we encounter have purposes and applications for us, in terms of story, relationality, and impact on the reader. 

The question is, then, what are the affordances for something like the BDSM nun assassins in Hitman: Absolution?


The poster above, as you can see, was a preview for the game. It features the Saints, as the hit team is called in game, with the word "TEASE" spelled out behind them. Of course, it's a tease as it's a promotional photo, but the shape of the "A" in the middle at hip/crotch level with the two central figures on either side, draws the eye straight there and leaves very little doubt as to the sexual implications of the image. 

My husband's been playing the game (he picked it up used, as he's traditionally been a big fan of the series but couldn't bring himself to give the company money after the above campaign). The plot involves killing his oldest "friend" at the Agency for her betrayal (and doing so while she's in the shower, naked) and then trying to save her daughter/ward, whose identity is in question and who is more than she seems (although she's powerful, she's helpless the whole time and unable to protect herself), from the Agency who wants her back, ostensibly for experimentation. The Saints pictured above are a pet project of 47's old boss -- according to overheard dialog, they are all war orphans and juvenile criminals and foster kids that he picks up, trains, and turns into dominatrix nun sex worker / assassins (the former proven when we're shown a cut scene of her taking a call while "working." The assassin team, however, doesn't command any particular respect from the men they command (and yes, all the regular soldiers are men, unburdened by traumatic, weird/bad sex-laden pasts), nor do they pose any real threat to 47. They'll shoot at you the same as the rest of them, but mostly they wander around and wait to be killed. 

So: ineffective emasculating traumatized women with daddy issues wearing porn-wear and waiting for you to kill them -- as a selling point of the game. What affordances does their presence in the game provide? Sexual arousal, almost certainly. A feeling of superiority, definitely. Ultra-feminized but in a punishable way? Yep. A minor challenge to be surmounted without much difficulty? Yep. Gendered appeal? Largely, yes. They aren't presented to be sympathetic to women or as an option for play (which would have its own eyebrow-raising issues). Appeal to taboo in the form of religion? Um, yeah. 
On top of all that, what does killing fake sexualized nuns really do? They don't have a place in the game canon. They aren't an ongoing threat, despite the promotional images and trailer. It's one level in the game plus a prior cut-scene to set it up. That's it. There's no narrative significance to their deaths -- we don't get any speeches, any drama. The end of the level is picking up a phone and talking to the boss, who's pissed off at 47 generally, but not about the deaths of the women. At this point, they aren't women. They're obstacles, targets, corpses, and prizes, objectified and rendered inert. 

Affordances don't just apply to the player/reader, though. If we take a step back and look at it from a creator perspective, what are the affordances/uses/possibilities the Saints provide? Effective "scandalous" sexualized marketing images? Definitely. Are those images directed at a particular demographic? Absolutely. They will, of course, drive away other demographics, but targeted sales are desirable, right? There are also questions of what satisfaction including these images/plot devices in this way may give the creators of the project, but those are questions we can't answer. It is clear, however, that they were purposefully included in this game with no precedent to consider -- so everyone ought to be asking themselves why.  

See, I get why a certain demographic does not want the portrayal of women in games to change, looking at the above. None of the affordances above are things one can really ask for in polite society. It's easy gratification for some darker stuff that doesn't bear talking about -- it just is. The people who enjoy it don't have to admit to it, and the people who don't care one way or the other may wrinkle their noses a bit, but it's so woven into the backdrop of what we see in the entertainment world that it barely registers -- it's normalized. 

Let me repeat that, just to let it sink in. 

A game where you beating up sado-masochistic women costumed as sexualized nuns (who are virgins and brides of Christ, thus just hanging a lantern on the virgin/whore thing) for the entertainment of the heterosexual male viewer with a bit of kink is NORMALIZED. 

More than that, even it's a selling point. A marketing win. 

A tease. 

I don't know about you, but those are some affordances I could live without.