Category Archives: Gaming

Tomb Raider #2: The Reboot

 

In the last gaming post, I wrote about the sexism in the gaming industry; the lack of female protagonists, and the unwillingness to give the same level of promotion to those female-orientated games that do exist. There are exceptions – games like Mirror’s Edge, Bayonetta and Beyond Good and Evil are all games published by major companies (EA, Sega and Ubisoft respectively) which feature strong, independent female protagonists. However, the earliest of those was made in 2003 and I’d struggle to think of many more, so what is clear is that there are precious few of them. Gaming, or console gaming at least, appears to be shaped by an industry with an extremely gendered world view, with Mulvey’s Male Gaze very much in operation; men making games about men for men.

Of those female protagonists, of course , the most famous is Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft. 2013 saw the latest release in the franchise, Tomb Raider, published by Square Enix. As that back-to-basics name suggests, this was intended as a complete reboot, a redesign of the whole game and concept for a new generation (it’s almost twenty years since the first game was released.) In narrative terms, it is a prequel to all the other games, showing Lara’s first adventure. Ultimately, the game received much critical praise and sold somewhere around 4,000,000 copies. Despite being the most successful game in the franchise, and one of the year’s biggest selling games, sales did not meet Square Enix’s targets and were regarded as disappointing.

Lara herself was redesigned for the game. She is more life-like and less overtly sexualised. In semiotic terms, indices of femininity – breasts and legs, most obviously, but also lips and eyes – are emphasised less, and the palette associated with her is more muted. It would appear that Square Enix are moving towards a representation which relies less upon dominant, and perhaps outdated, ideologies about female roles in video games. Lara is still very conventionally attractive, but she looks less like a male fantasy and more like a fit and healthy young woman. Given the growing importance of the female gaming audience, this is perhaps an attempt to offer some sense of personal identity to that audience. Lara, it would appear, will be defined less by how she looks and more by what she does.

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The first trailer for the game, called Crossroads, was shown at E3 in 2012. E3 is an industry-only convention (unlike events such as Europe’s Gamescom and Hong Kong’s Asia Game Show, the world’s biggest gaming convention) and thus Square Enix were relying on word-of-mouth, journalists and bloggers to take the news about their new game to the audience.

In general terms, it is clearly a conventional game trailer in terms of structure and narrative; it features particularly exciting parts of the game and gives some sense of the plot and narrative (essentially, Lara learning to protect and defend herself.) It utilises some conventions of ‘realist’ film (‘shakycam’, sunspots and rain on the camera) in order to create a grittier gaming experience. The game is also much more violent than previous instalments, and it also borrows conventions from horror films, especially the slasher movie; the canted angles, fast edits and flashing transitions, for example, ant the dark, underground locations. Generically, this takes the game closer to survival horror than adventure.

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Reactions were mixed, but were soon dominated by discussions about the representational issues in the trailer. There were accusations that it was little more than ‘torture porn’; basically, that it offers pleasures to a male audience who want to watch a young woman being brutalised in a number of ways. (This again makes the diversions offered by the trailer similar to those offered by slasher movies, a genre typically aimed at a male audience.) Lara is battered and attacked for the first part of the trailer and even as she becomes more competent in defending herself, she remains stereotypically feminine and ‘soft’ – for example, she apologises to a deer before killing it. (Try to imagine the male protagonist of any game ever doing that.) Soon, she calls her mentor, a man, to help her defend herself from other men as she tries to rescue her female friend. So, judged by the trailer, we appear to be in a very conventional Proppsian narrative, constructed to appeal to a male gaze; girls are unable to defend themselves from men, so they need other men to help them. Things happen to Lara in this trailer and she appears to be powerless to stop any of it – there is no real sense of her being active and even the last shot is of her falling down a cliff face; she is being represented as a victim, which seems like a huge departure from previous games.

The real controversy, though, was about a scene in the trailer where one of the villains seems about to rape Lara, although she manages to fight him off. The editing in this scene is clearly designed to create excitement – jump cuts, quick cuts from mid-shot to close-up, MTV-style editing. Rape, it seems to suggest, is a fit topic for a game, particularly one aimed at a male audience. This reveals n=much about how audiences are regarded by the industry; Robyn Miller wrote ‘In brief, the marketing strategy assumes that its intended audience will only express interest in a female character if she is systematically victimized and portrayed as inert.’

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Square Enix released a statement which probably did more harm than good, saying that players would want to ‘protect’ Lara – again, we can detect paternalism here and an assumption that the audience is male. The ‘buzz’ was not about the game at this point, but about the trailer and given that the company were relying on positive reports from bloggers and media in general, this first trailer seems to have been a textbook example of bad marketing. In the mainstream, non-gaming, press in particular, the impression was created that the whole game was about rape. (Newspapers with large circulations like the UK’s The Sun and The Guardian are examples of this.) But influential gaming blogs like Kotaku were also bemused by the marketing angle; not at all the response the company wanted.

Closer to  the actual launch of the game, we can see that Square Enix have changed their approach. This trailer, called Reborn, is making a determined effort to appeal across gender and age groups.

Firstly, we actually see the intended audience; both genders, various ages and races.

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Secondly, they are speaking Lara’s words, giving her a voice; in the previous trailer, most of the talking was done by Roth. We still see Lara suffer a lot, but this time the ‘turnaround’, where she takes control of the narrative, comes a lot more quickly and more powerfully. ‘I must fight,’ she says, and then we have a list of adjectives to describe her – ‘fast’, ‘bold’, ‘brutal’ and so on. These are words and ideas which would not conventionally be associated with females. Finally, we hear ‘I am LARA CROFT.’ The focus is now on her as a survivor rather than a victim (the tagline for the game was ‘A survivor is born’) and as the protagonist, the active character in the narrative. This is much more in keeping with the established character of Lara Croft and, indeed, it offer a much more accurate representation of what was generally agreed to be a very good game.

There were other marketing approaches used – free DLC was given away to those who pre-ordered the game for example – but perhaps the damage had been done. Jeff Vogel wrote that the marketing campaign never made clear who the game was actually targeted at – the genre of the game, the mood and tone, the main character had all apparently changed and were represented inconsistently throughout the campaign – and perhaps that was part of the reason for the apparently disappointing sales.

Gender in gaming: Tomb Raider #1

There’s a gender problem in gaming. Although figures about the genders of gamers create a reassuring sense of equality (the actual numbers change a little depending on which articles you read, but this story, saying that 47% of gamers are female, is pretty typical), this does not appear to be supported at an institutional level.

Games with exclusively female heroes don’t sell (because publishers don’t support them.)

Ben Kuchera has written about this, pointing out that ‘male developers create games with male only heroes for an often overwhelmingly male audience.’ (Attentive students might be reminded of Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory, which suggests exactly this type of structural bias in the film industry.) He goes on to reference Patrick Kolan’s point  that pretty much every protagonist of every game is a white guy with some facial hair. Kolan has a point – after a few games, all these chaps basically become the same person:

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So, we have male-orientated games dominating the market hugely. Why is this? Although gaming as a whole is approaching equal take-up, console gaming is still male-dominated, as Sara Perez points out:

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Michael Pachter goes further, suggsting that the ‘core’ and ‘hardcore’ audiences are much more dominated by males, saying that “Core is probably average age 30 and 60-40 male. Hardcore is average age 25, and 85-15 male.” So, perhaps it’s the case that the console audience is predominantly male and thus male-orientated games get created for them. However, there is also the possibility that this male-dominated marketing is what keeps the audience predominantly male; until female protagonists are as common as male, the theory goes, the audience is always going to be mostly male because there isn’t enough to attract a similarly sized female audience. And it would appear from our parade of identical tough-guy characters up above that the gaming audience is deeply conservative and mainstream; they like more of the same, over and over, and that means more macho male protagonists. So, there is a problem. Kuchera points out that the industry assumes that audiences will be less interested in games about women, and that marketing budgets reflect this: ‘Games with only female heroes are given half the marketing budget as games with male heroes.’

As a result, those few games with female protagonists tend to attract different sorts of attention; they often get analysed as possible turning points in terms of female representation. (Here, for example, is a comparison of the possible feminist readings of Portal and Mirror’s Edge.) Possibly the most discussed series of games ever, largely because of gender issues, is Tomb Raider, now published by Square Enix. The game has been around since 1996, when the first title was released; since then, there have been fourteen games (including spin-offs), two movies (with a third in pre-production) as well as various comic books, animations and so on. Lara Croft, the protagonist of the series, is clearly big business; more than this, she is an absolutely iconic video game and popular culture figure. (She even holds six world records, including ‘Most successful female video game character.’) So, if we’re looking at female protagonists, she’s the obvious candidate.

She’s had a few different iterations, but in most people’s minds, she looks like this:

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The semiotics are a bit tangled here; there are indices of femininity as part of a clear dominant representation of youthful sexuality and ‘beauty’; the long hair, the huge breasts and tiny waist (with hip cocked to emphasise the curves), the short shorts and tight top. At one level, she is being represented as a conventional female gaming protagonist, albeit more realistically than the more fantastical examples – here, for example, from Soul Calibur:

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So to some extent Lara is sexualised, which is very typical in gaming. (Note, for example, how more sexualised Halo’s Cortana became as the series developed, as noted here by Carol Pinchefsky; she writes that Cortana ‘went from a sarcastic artificial intelligence to the ultimate damsel in distress.’) Presumably, this blatant sex appeal is designed to appeal to a male audience. Certainly, the marketing materials have always emphasised Lara’s physicality, although not necessarily in an obviously sexual way:

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However, Lara Croft is also constructed in part from some semiotic markers associated more typically with masculinity, as seen in the first shot of her above; her clothes are basically functional and in dull colours (compare the Soul Calibur palette), she bears pistols and directly addresses the camera in a low-angle mid shot, connoting confidence. Again, if we look at the marketing image above, she is not only conventionally beautiful but active; typically, and in line with Propp’s narrative theories, the women in games are passive ‘damsels in distress’ who need a masculine ‘hero’ to rescue them. This is a long established narrative convention of games, going back at least as far as Nintendo’s Donkey Kong released in 1981; one male seeks to rescue a passive woman who is being held by another male:

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Lara, clearly, is different; she is the protagonist, the centre of the narrative, and the active character, the one who motivates the narrative. She is also completely independent, very cool, adventurous and practical. As such, we can perhaps see her as a feminist figure, but that sexualised representation, obviously appealing in part to the male gaze, is a bit of a problem in this regard. It’s hard, perhaps, to be a feminist icon when you are dressed in a way designed to appeal to men. Postfeminist theory might offer a more accurate theoretical framework. ‘Postfeminism’ is notoriously impossible to define, but for our purposes it is a modern feminist ideology which allows for a combination of (stereotypically feminine) sexuality and (stereotypically masculine) activity and toughness. It says that women can be sexual and independently active. As blogger Fido points out, Lara offers ‘the ‘best of both worlds’: she is warm, charming, good-looking, eloquent, intelligent, nurturing, cool and successful.’ (He disapproves of seeing this as in any way ‘feminist’, though, suggesting that Lara is basically just another male fantasy figure.) Regardless, that seems the best way for us to understand how Lara Croft appears to appeal to both genders; in terms of Uses and Gratifications, she offers personal identity to females and diversion to males.

Generally, with regard to gaming’s gender issues, things might have to change; as we saw above, women are starting to dominate the mobile platforms and, as Sarah Perez points out, the market for mobile gaming is now bigger than that for console gaming (in 2011, when she was writing, it was about 200 million as compared to 180 million. That gap is a lot bigger now.) As such, we can perhaps expect to see more female-friendly games and representations.

Back to Lara Croft – the most recent game in the series, 2013’s Tomb Raider, has been trailed as a reboot of the entire series, and the marketing of that game will be the subject of the next post.

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Gaming is a huge industry – it’s predicted to be worth $82 billion by 2017. Compare that to the music industry ($16.6 billion in 2011) or the film industry (still ahead, with a projection of global profits of $139 billion for 2017.) For such a young industry, it is enormously successful and moving extremely quickly. So, obviously people who work in the industry spend a lot of time trying to guess what direction it is going to grow in. Although people still tend to think of gamers being lost in the lonely glow of a PC screen or shackled to an XBox or PlayStation, the biggest growth areas are the mobile platforms – IOS, Android and so on.

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How big is this market? There are 300 million tablets in the world and 1 billion smartphones, so there is a huge potential audience for these games. (In comparison, there are about 78 million XBox 360s globally.) And it is growing unbelievably quickly – the tablet market, for example, has grown by 60% in the last year.

The year’s  most popular game (this changes very quickly, though!) on mobile is, unsurprisingly,  Candy Crush. It’s very popular indeed, with about 7.7 million active users per day. It also makes a heck of a lot of money – round about $850,000 per day. (yes, per DAY.) That works out at about 11 cents per user, but the company who make it, King, point out that 70% of users never pay anything for the game. The game uses a ‘freemium’ model – that is, it is free to play but you pay for ‘extras’ – extra lives or abilities. (These purchases – small amounts, typically 99 cents a time, are called ‘microtransactions.’) As the game goes on and becomes harder, obviously, it becomes more likely that people will buy extras. So, if you’re one of the people who’ve been paying for these extras, thanks from the rest of us.

It’s also important to realise that these games are often very popular with a female audience. It’s estimated that 60% of mobile gamers are female.  They also tend to be younger than the more traditional, console-owning audience.

Our particular interest, of course, is how these games are marketed. Firstly, the game needs to be suitable for mobile play. Small puzzle games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds- easy to get started with, designed to be played in short bursts, and offering a series of short but increasingly difficult challenges which has the effect of getting people ‘hooked’ – lend themselves well to the way people play games on their phones or tablets. It’s more unusual for audiences to play for long periods on mobile devices so, although strategy or big open-world games do also appear on mobile devices, most of the really big grossers tend to be those designed to be played in a mobile-friendly fashion. (They are referred to as ‘casual games.’)

Creating synergy with existing institutions is also important. For Candy Crush and Farmville (made by King’s big rivals, Zynga) that meant working with Facebook. People could play either within Facebook or from the game’s own app. Riccardo Zacconi, CEO of King, pointed out that ‘People who play Candy Crush Saga on both the web and on the mobile app show nearly twice the level of engagement compared to users who play on just one platform.’ Progress was shared across both platforms to make switching between the two as seamless as possible – a winning combination for both King and Facebook. Linking the game to Facebook accounts meant that scores were being published on timelines which, of course, means Facebook friends are more likely to play the game also. Integrating these social dimensions was what really drove the game’s success. Likewise, Angry Birds is playable in an app or online, or it is available on XBox or PS3. Making the game available across multiple platforms (and, in the case of Angry Birds, developing whole lines of traditional toys, merchandise and even an upcoming movie) spreads awareness of the game and obviously makes people more likely to try it.

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Other methods of marketing include using social media to create an imagined community (Candy Crush’s Facebook page has close to 50 million likes. That’s a lot.) Angry Birds used animation and advertising on YouTube to drive their audience growth (one example here with 14 million views.) The people at whom these games are marketed (younger females, predominantly) are also the largest section of the target audience for much social media; the ‘average’ Facebook user, apparently, is  a 25 year old woman, living in a city, with a college degree and a family income of more than $75000 per year. That young, aspirational, upper-demographic audience is extremely attractive to marketers, obviously; many mobile games are targeted directly at them.

GTA V

The gamers amongst us probably don’t need reminding that Rockstar Games’ latest release, Grand Theft Auto V, hit the stores this week. One of the most successful games franchises ever, GTA is the biggest earner for the very successful Rockstar Games. Extremely positive reviews suggest it’s business as usual – a massive open world, modelled after Los Angeles this time, wherein players basically create whatever sort of mayhem they want. (Here’s a list of some stuff you can do. Play tennis, steal a dog, beat a guy to death with a sign, become a stock dealer or watch TV, for example. Yes, you can play a game where you watch yourself watching TV on your TV. Very postmodern.)

This is the most expensive game in history. By all accounts Rockstar spent $115 million on developing the game and $150 million on marketing (note, GCSE students – marketing takes the lion’s share of the budget.) And amazingly, it will be obsolete in a few weeks since the current crop of consoles – the XBox 360 and the Playstation 3 – are about to be replaced with completely new models which will not play older games. So, who’s going to be dumb enough to buy a game on a console which is onthe way out?

Lots and lots of people, it turns out. Reassuringly for Rockstar, the game has made $800 million dollars in its first week of sale. (Yes, that is an extremely big number. Gaming is very, very big business. Tell your parents that when they ask you why you study Media.) Why is it so successful? Well, Rockstar are fantastic at marketing. The game has, of course, its own website. There are spin-off websites based on different factions and groups in the game (a mockery of the Scientology religion, which is bound to stir up a little controversy. Controversy, of course, is very good marketing.) It has its facebook community (a fantastic example of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities‘ – a group of people brought together by some completely made-up ‘similarity.’) Accidentally-on-purpose ‘leaks’ of game info (the map, for example, was leaked on Reddit. This gave Rockstar a convenient opportunity to point out that the world of this game is bigger than their last three games combined. Deliberate leak or not, that also helps with their marketing.) Obviously, more usual methods of marketing, like sending advance copies out to be reviewed, have also been employed, so the game makes an appearance on the big review aggregation sites like Metacritic. (In fact, it’s managed to become the joint best-ever reviewed game on Metacritic. The game it is tied with? GTA IV.)

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More generally, the game is marketed using the same methods all its previous iterations have used. They aren’t too hard to figure out when you look at some of the marketing materials. Sexualised representations of women, hyper-masculine representations of men, narratives which depend hugely on binary oppositions between law and criminality (and, of course, the player is on the side of criminality.) (And what looks like a nice bit of synergy with Apple – is that an iphone she’s holding?)The game has been criticised for what can be perceived as racist and sexist stereotyping – but it hasn’t been criticised very much and it does seem strange that representations that would never be tolerated in films or on TV are very much the norm in these types of games. Perhaps this is evidence that the game, despite its 18 rating, has a huge audience of younger males; the audience, presumably, most likely to respond to these types of representations. (Having said that, the average age of gamers is apparently 35.) The gaming world (indeed, the ‘geek’ world in general) is often criticised for sexism. Women are routinely represented according to the requirements of an apparent completely male gaze. Halo, another of the world’s most successful titles,  might be an example. The male hero, Master Chief, looks like this:

He reminds me of me.

Yep, he’s cool. He is active, fit, competent, seemingly undefeatable. A very dominant, and very complimentary, representation of masculinity.

The closest thing to a heroine in Halo is Cortana, the AI (Artificial Intelligence) hologram Master Chief carries around with him. She looks like this.

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She is completely dependent upon Master Chief, although in many ways she is smarter and more powerful than him. She’s also deeply in love with him, which adds to the unevenness of the gender representations – she needs him in a way he doesn’t need her. And, of course, she doesn’t seem to be wearing very much. I don’t know about you, but if I was programming an AI to help out a super-soldier defend the world from the Elite, I’d probably put her in uniform, rather than what looks like a wispy blue cloud. Obviously, the intended audience here – the imagined community – is male. This – both the male and the female representations – are examples of Male Gaze in action.

So, GTA V is massively successful, thanks to a very clever marketing campaign that depends upon both traditional and more adventurous methods; but also, perhaps worryingly, on using its tendency towards (possibly) racist and (more clearly) sexist representations as a selling point. It seems to work for an audience of mainstreamers. A final point is that GTA V has three protagonists; none of them is female. When asked why, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser said, ‘The concept of being masculine was so key to this story.’ It would appear, then, that the biggest game ever is really just for the boys.