Fair warning, a lot of personal stuff here. I try to separate this out from the regular fare. I even considered not posting this since I wrote it during one of my low points, which seem to come in regular patterns. But then I didn’t write anything in this that I think is untrue or dishonest. Anyway, don’t hesitate to skip it if you’re sick of my shit, because you won’t be missing anything important.
A few weeks ago at the time of writing, journalist Tae Kim at Bloomberg posted an article titled “Video Game Industry Struggles to Shake Sexist Attitudes”. In this piece, Kim lauds Sony for pushing what he sees as a positive depiction of a female game protagonist in Aloy, the lead and player character of Horizon Zero Dawn and its upcoming sequel Horizon Forbidden West. Kim contrasts Aloy with Bayonetta, Lara Croft, and characters in Genshin Impact (whose names I don’t know because I haven’t played it — I’ve had enough of gacha for one lifetime) criticizing the latter depictions for being overly sexualized. He also criticizes the industry for continuing to ignore women’s voices and for the bad practices (to put it far too mildly) of some leading developers, most notably Activision-Blizzard, Ubisoft, and Riot Games.
Mr. Kim’s article caused a minor shitstorm on Twitter, one that a lot of us in the game blogging sphere got swept up in, myself included. He was dogpiled for his article, a dogpile I joined in, mainly for his takes on Bayonetta and other examples of games that caused him to “cringe” and that he felt he couldn’t play in front of family and friends. I believe most of us stuck to criticizing this particular attack, though I and others also complained about game journalists in general and how they approach this matter — and I’ve done that here too, so it’s nothing new for me.
However, some others took issue with all this criticism, and I had a few interesting discussions that day with people with differing opinions. So I decided to write something on the matter. I wrote out a rough draft, in fact, but I’ve since deleted it.
There are two reasons behind this decision. The first is pretty simple: I’ve already written about my thoughts on the matter of sexual depictions in games and other media several times, from both legal and moral angles — you can find all those posts in the pretentiously titled “Commentaries” tab above. Admittedly I haven’t taken on a feminist perspective in any of them, but my only comment on that is that I don’t really have any problem with the depiction of Aloy in Horizon and feel that there’s plenty of room in this massive industry for all sorts of depictions and art styles, whether of female or male or any other variety of character. I just prefer anime-influenced styles that some people take issue with for sometimes being sexualized — for examples I’ve praised that occasionally get criticized for similar reasons, see the work of Nan Yaegashi (Senran Kagura) and Sayori (Nekopara). I’ve also talked up a couple of artbooks full of ecchi art featuring almost entirely women, and I follow plenty of such artists on Twitter because I like their work. But that’s a personal preference that I don’t think affects my stance in this case.
The second reason is more complicated, and it’s also the real reason I’m writing this post instead. As far as I can tell, Kim’s position is that games with art styles and character designs such as those found in Bayonetta and the other games he brought up should be discouraged and the type found in Horizon Zero Dawn and similar games encouraged. I’ve said before, and I continue to say, that all art must be open to criticism. However, Kim’s argument seems to go beyond criticism for the purpose of expressing what he likes and dislikes (which is how I believe I use it) and into criticism for the purpose of pushing a change in artistic norms.
I understand that the argument supporting Kim’s position for this change is directed at a perceived social problem — the problem of how women are perceived in games and in media in general. And the simple fact is that I’m not well-suited to write about purely social problems. I can write pretty well about legal problems because law is my profession, and I can write about political and historical questions because I’ve always had an interest in those subjects and have studied them. And undoubtedly social questions are mixed up with legal, political, and historical ones.
But I can’t write very well about purely social issues because I’m pretty far removed from society, or at least as far removed as possible while still being attached enough to it to live a more or less civilized life. That removal started when I was still young, and I dealt with it largely by burying myself in books and video games. After high school things got a bit better, and I managed to have something like a social life, along with extremely poorly matched and conducted relationships each of which ended in a complete wreck. But for as long as I can remember, up until today, I’ve always felt like a misfit. I can get along well enough now, and I take part in society just as much as I think I have to for the sake of my professional life, but my personal life is undoubtedly a mess. Unrelated to all that, I now have to live in a way I dislike, carrying out family obligations that I had no part in creating (short of being born, which I certainly had no say in) but that I have a duty to carry out anyway.1
I used to despair over all this, but you can only care so much before you lose that ability. I went numb more or less after finishing at law school, which was a good time to do so considering both the change for the worse in the political culture in the US and the hellfire and bullshit most newly minted lawyers have to go through.
After saying all this, I realize now that I’d be ridiculous to even try to convince anyone else of my way of thinking about a purely social issue. I’m not a role model; just the opposite: an example of how not to live. The only success I’ve had in life so far has been professional, and that success came almost entirely by accident and after a long series of stumbles caused in part by my addiction to alcohol, and which drove that addiction that I was only able to truly get free of in the last couple of years. The fact that I’m even still here is perhaps some kind of miracle, and I should be thankful for it.
A more reasonable person probably would be thankful and would do their best to be an active member of society with a positive impact. I certainly don’t want to have a negative impact on society, and I’d like to use my skills to help those in need with pro bono work once I have a freer hand. But if I magically came into massive wealth, after making sure my immediate and extended family was enriched and giving to charity enough to satisfy my conscience, I’d use it to isolate myself as far as possible from society, probably by building some kind of fortress. Maybe on an island in the South Atlantic, one of those really remote ones.
It’s probably more realistic for me to hope that I’ll be able to escape someday, at least for a few hours at a time, into some sort of hypothetical full-dive VR world where I can live out my fantasies well away from the irritations of real life. This possibility has been talked about a lot lately, even if only because of Facebook’s extremely shitty-looking Meta setup. But it’s still a possibility worth talking about, assuming the technology is feasible in the form I’m thinking of, and as long as it’s provided by a service more trustworthy than Facebook — which is to say trustworthy in the slightest.
So you see what sort of person I am. I don’t think I’ve ever made much secret of any of these feelings, but they seemed relevant to write about more fully here. You might say all of the above makes me a monstrous cynic, which I honestly don’t want to be, but you may be right about that anyway. You might also say that I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face in thinking and acting this way, which may also be true. Or you might say I’m being selfish in my desire for near-total escape from life, and I’d completely agree with you about that.
But I’ve come to an age now where I don’t think I can change anymore. Over two years of sobriety has certainly helped me out, but mostly only with regard to my physical health, which is shockingly somehow still pretty good — my liver was sturdier than I thought, or maybe it’s spent the last two years repairing itself, and thank God that either or both are true. Otherwise I’m still just as bitter and depressive as I ever was, and I still have the same desire for escape as I ever did. It even seems to me that my mental and emotional health may be getting worse, though nearly two years of COVID isolation may also have to do with that.
Either way, I’m done writing about such issues unless something specific comes up, probably with legal significance, that I can actually address. My stance on art and its potential effects on society has been and will always be that people should be able to freely access and enjoy whatever they wish, of course with appropriate age restrictions in place, and assuming nobody is being harmed in the creation or enjoyment of said art. That said, I do agree that it would be good if positive depictions of sex, relationships, and gender roles in general are advanced by developers and publishers. Quite a lot of depictions that people like Mr. Kim look down on (like Bayonetta for example) I see as positive myself, but we’ll never agree on that point, so there’s no point in talking about those any further.
But as far as supposed negative indirect influences go, to be blunt, I don’t give a damn about them. It’s far too easy to draw any connection you like between some bad act and the artist or work that supposedly drove it. Without specific evidence linking scantily-clad women in video games to sexism in real life, I’m inclined to treat that claim in the same way as the also unproven but constantly cited theory that violent video games contribute to violence in real life. There’s clearly a problem with sexism among some game developers as we’ve seen — perhaps Activision is just the most obvious and outrageous case. And there are absolutely sexist elements among gamers as a whole. Both of these need addressing. But I don’t believe a cause-and-effect pattern between racy female character designs and outfits2 and real-life sexism has been established. As I’ve seen it, the claim is always made without support, as though it’s self-evident. I don’t believe it is. I know people I very much respect who I disagree with on this point, and there seems to be an unbridgeable gap between us.
But then, again, my opinion on this issue might not be worth considering for the reasons I’ve set out above. At this point, I only want to be left alone to drown in the kind of fiction that can nearly transport me out of reality, at least for a while, while the rest of the world goes to hell as it is currently doing. That’s probably reason enough to ignore my opinions on purely social matters, given my warped view of society and my self-destructive tendencies.
Anyway, sorry for the mess yet again. My next post will have less of a “manifesto written in a log cabin” quality to it, I hope. It just seems to me based on my experience that hard work, honesty, and even good luck aren’t enough to live a decent life — you also need at least a somewhat positive attitude, which I obviously don’t have and can’t seem to find.
This is somewhat related to one of the next anime series I’ll be writing about, so you can look forward to that. How’s that for a segue? Until next time.
1 To be clear, it’s completely possible to appreciate these kinds of games with lewd elements and to also be socially well-adjusted. The fact that I’m not socially well-adjusted is unrelated to my enjoyment of those specific games, though I think it is related to my plunging into games and other media in general as a form of escape.
2 This is also assuming that every instance of sexualization in a game is bad, which I obviously don’t believe. It certainly can be bad depending on how it’s handled, but as always, context has to be considered. But I’ve written about some aspects of the issue here and here, and I don’t think I have anything to add to those posts unless anyone feels like attacking my arguments in them. Despite what I wrote above, I’m happy to deliver a rebuttal in that case, but no more than that.