Category Archives: GCSE

Hong Kong #2: Hard Boiled

I wrote recently about wuxia as one of the defining genres of Hong Kong (and, more generally, Chinese) cinema. Another very characteristic genre is the triad or gangster movie. The Hong Kong take on the gangster film, though generically very similar to classic Western efforts like The Godfather II or The Public Enemy, is well established as a sub-genre of its own. The director most closely associated with it is John Woo, most famous in Hong Kong for A Better Tomorrow (though probably better known internationally for Face/Off and Mission Impossible II.)

Woo’s influence is obvious in many places. His most obvious fan is Quentin Tarantino, but there are many; you know all those never-ending shoot-outs and fights in Kill Bill or Django Unchained? Or the balletic hyper violence of Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado? Or Neo and Trinity’s billion-bullet shootout in The Matrix? All show the very obvious influence of Woo. Basically, any time you see some poor sap being riddled with bullets by a guy jumping through the air with a pistol in either hand, or a gunfight which goes on and on and on,  or two (or three, or more) guys in a Mexican standoff, you are watching the influence of John Woo. He taught Americans how to shoot each other in films with style.

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This is not to trivialise his influence, though, particularly in Hong Kong. Before Woo, Hong Kong film was dominated by wuxia and other martial arts movies. Reflection theory suggests that film should mirror the place and time of creation, and that if it doesn’t, it’s obsolete. Cool as it would be, Hong Kong is not actually a medieval samurai society where disagreements are settled through acrobatic swordplay or even through Bruce Lee style ass-kickings. So, wuxia and martial arts movies were perhaps starting to look a little hackneyed. John Woo came from this background; he started off making martial arts films for Shaw Studios, then did the same for Golden Harvest. He was very much renowned as an expert in filming action scenes, but may well have been feeling the increasing irrelevance of these particular genres. 1980s Hong Kong was suffering something of a crime wave (crime plateaued in Hong Kong in the 1980s, and much of it was triad-related) and Woo wanted to make a more modern type of film which reflected more accurately the realities of contemporary life. He did this more or less by replacing the fists and swords of the martial arts movies with guns, and thus a new sub-genre was born. It was very accurately christened ‘heroic bloodshed’ by Rick Baker and it was characterised largely by what came to be called ‘gun fu’ or ‘bullet ballet’ – basically, highly stylised gunfights, descended from the long, intricate, highly-choreographed fights from all those martial arts and wuxia movies. It all started with A Better Tomorrow, described by Anthony Leong as a ‘paradigm shift‘ for Hong Kong cinema.

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The last film Woo made in Hong Kong before leaving for Hollywood was 1992’s Hard Boiled. He worked once again with Chow Yun Fat, also the star of A Better Tomorrow and The Killer. The plot is pretty familiar – a maverick cop sees his partner gunned down by a gang and sets out to get revenge. Indeed, the plots and themes of Hong Kong thrillers are very generic; they tell the same stories and explore the same themes as crime films from the west, which basically means that they are variations upon film noir.

It is probably no surprise that a film called Hard Boiled has a strong noir influence. Our main character, the maverick cop nicknamed Tequila is, of course, the hardboiled detective figure, and to make things even more noirish, he also plays clarinet in a jazz club, as we see during the opening credits. The iconography, the blue palette and the music all locate us firmly in  Western crime film tradition.

Jazz

And so we pretty much know what to expect in terms of character and theme. There is the characteristically noirish confusion of good and evil – typically, the cops are just about as ruthless and almost-sociopathic as the criminals. Tequila is a loner, disinclined to work with others or to follow instructions; he is the classic noir tough guy, oblivious of the law even as he fights to defend it. His partner, Tony, is torn between loyalty to the triad gang he’s been infiltrating and his job as a cop; he’s been undercover for so long, his identity is confused. Such blurring of the lines between good and bad is, of course, at the very heart of noir and as such this is a very conventional film.

Likewise, these two characters are predictably hypermasculine; typically of the action genre, they are pretty much bulletproof. (It gets a bit silly. Tony gets electrocuted to death and is resuscitated; seconds later, he is battling baddies again.) The film is, at one level, about masculine loyalty and honour; like many other crime films , women do not get much of a look in. One of the defining aspects of this parent genre is the conflict between ‘fathers’ and ‘sons’; we see this early in the film as Tony shoots his symbolic ‘father’ in the heart.

Shoot Hui in the heart

So, apparently all we have here is a conventional neo-noir set in Hong Kong. But there is innovation. Firstly, as mentioned before, we need to look at the action scenes.  More than anything else, John Woo films are about these set-piece shoot-outs. Emanuel Levy wrote that Woo’s skills in ‘staging action sequences with the precision of a ballet choreography are unmatched by anyone working in world cinema today.’ His hugely stylised gunfights, made with swooping cameras, slow-motion and intricate editing,  took the action movie to new heights of viscerality. Hong Kong films were much more violent that Hollywood movies of the time (or now, mostly) and as such the plumes and sprays of blood which seem to accompany every shooting were both shocking and compellingly visual.

Another aspect to Woo’s possible auteurship is the characteristically Chinese element to his work. He brings imagery from the martial arts movie into neo-noir. White, for example, takes on the Chinese meaning of death and so we often see characters dressed in white (or, in Tequila’s case, covered in powder) to foreshadow or follow death.

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Perhaps Woo’s favourite symbol, though, is the bird. In this film, Tony makes a paper crane – very Asian! – every time he kills someone and the cranes come to symbolise the soul. Family, always crucial in the crime movie anyway, takes on an added element of importance in the Chinese context.

Cranes

There are also stylistic elements which are very recognisable. Woo’s use of slow-motion and freeze frame, as well as his cross-cutting (we see Tequila recreate one of the crimes as he investigates it; this is cut with the actual crime itself) are all very characteristic of him. His humour, often quite dark, is also a consistent part of his approach. In Hard Boiled, for example, the final, epic shoot-out (basically the last third of the film) takes place in a hospital full of victims, shooters, and babies. Tequila ends up killing off a bunch of bad guys with a baby in his arms (telling the child to look away from the ‘X rated action.’ The baby ends up spattered with blood which is either funny or disturbing, depending on your tolerance for such things:

Bloody baby

So, Woo has his own style, and he consistently addresses the same themes in a sub-genre which he basically created himself. Can we call him an auteur? The originators of auteur theory, Francois Truffaut (in Europe) and Andrew Sarris (in America) would almost certainly turn their noses up at the concept of a auteur who worked in what is preceived to be a very debased genre; and there are those who say that Woo’s style is limited rather than unique. However, Sarris did demand that ‘a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serves as his signature’ in order to qualify for auteur status, and Woo certainly does that. Ultimately, though, genre theory and auteur theory are in conflict – one cannot be an independently-minded artist if all the decisions are made in advance by the genre conventions – and while Woo might well be the finest director of action sequences in the world, I suspect he will never be accorded the respect that directors working in less obviously generic areas are. It could be argued, however, that directing the best shoot out ever – the tearoom shootout at the start of the film has been described as such – goes some way to compensate for that.

 

Teenagers#1: The Breakfast Club

Probably more than any other director, John Hughes is associated with the representation of teenage high school life and the series of movies he made in an extremely prolific few years between 1984 and 1986 were hugely influential in creating a certain representation of American high school life and American teen life in general.

Generically, Hughes’ films are closest to the teen movie; the characters are teens, they have the stereotypical teen problems (parents, basically) and the action usually takes place in the most typical teen movie location of all, the high school. Perhaps Hughes’ main claim to auteur status, however, comes from the fact that he changed that genre; whatever revisionism it has experienced was started by him. James Berardinelli  points out that Hughes’ run of teen movies ‘…were a cut above the sex and booze-drenched antics of most  teen comedies.’ Such comedies were very popular at the time, and they tended to emphasise crude, sex-based humour, very predictable plots and one-dimensional characters. I’ve mentioned before with regard to The Hunger Games that films aimed at younger audiences are quite often dismissed as being less worthy than those for older people; but sometimes this snobbery is completely justified. It certainly was in the case of a lot of those cheap, predictable, quickly-made teen movies. Now, however, films like The Spectacular Now or Juno  – even The Hunger Games – seem to do a much better job of representing the actual lives of actual teenagers. John Walters, perhaps, started that process of revisionism in terms of teenage representation with film like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

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Berardinelli goes on to say that of all Hughes’ films, ‘…The Breakfast Club was arguably the most insightful and emotionally-true’ and there seems to be a consensus that this is his finest film. The plot is simplicity itself; five kids are in Saturday detention. They are quickly revealed as stereotypes, handily identified in the voiceover at the star of the film as we look at a montage of a typically shabby, vandalised school; criminal, athlete, basket-case, princess, brain. These are the archetypes of the genre, constructed from all the signifiers we use to group teenage characters. They sound like a High School reinvention of Proppsian archetypes. And, like all stereotypes, they are, of course, reductive and simplistic.

At first, they seem confined to their stereotypes, as do their parents. We see each of them arrive outside of the school, ready to serve their Saturday morning detention. The “Princess”‘ father promises that he will make it up to her with gifts if she just does the detention. The “brain”‘s mother is outraged and tells him to make sure he uses the time to study. The “jock”‘s dad cares only about his son’s athletic scholarship, but tells him that it’s normal for guys to ‘screw around.’ Whoever drops the anti-social “basketcase” off squeals off without speaking to her. And the ‘criminal’ arrives after all the others, alone. They all dress appropriately to their roles, easily marked out by their respective clothing signifiers.

Judd Nelson as John Bender

The ‘criminal’ – John Bender, played by Judd Nelson – is the first character to dominate. He pretends to urinate on the floor, threatens to ‘impregnate’ the ‘prom queen’ and generally tries to provoke the others. He is instantly recognisable as the ‘rebel’ – the long hair and grungey leather and plaid clothing functions as Peircian symbols of this character type. He is immediately established as a binary opposite to Emilio Estevez’s clean-cut ‘jock’, who threatens to beat him up. Estevez is seated beside Molly Ringwald’s ‘Princess’ and these proxemics combined with audience foreknowledge and genre expectation make us anticipate that these two – the only two of the five wo are ‘acceptable’ in the social hierarchy of High School – will form a partnership. The nerdy ‘Brain’ (Anthony Michael Hall) and the loner ‘basketcase’ (Ally Sheedy) are situated on right of the screen, and again, we are perhaps invited to start linking these characters together. Bender, the rebel, is by himself, at the back (of course.) And the supervising teacher, played by Paul Gleason, is a bullying, preening idiot. Another obvious and very generic binary opposition, between teens and adults, is well-established in the opening minutes of the film.

We first start to get beyond the stereotypes when ‘Princess’ Claire starts to describe the strained relationship between her parents. She is vulnerable to Bender’s teasing about her weight, her probable virginity and so on – the typical things that boys tease girls about. Clearly, she is more than her stereotype – she appears more thoughtful, vulnerable and reserved than the stereotypical “prom queen”. And this, of course, is the point of the film – to get below these stereotypes and to show how meaningless they are.

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And one by one, all of the characters are revealed. The reaction shots of geeky Brian when Bender (who is the catalyst for change in the film) teases him about his family reveal to the audience that his home life is not as charmingly all-American as we might expect.

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Soon, Bender reveals the nature of his own home life – violently abusive – and we see his own vulnerabilities. His reaction to this revelation is violent – he is verbally abusive to the others and smashes up a  desk -and we start to see how he is made violent by the violence in his own background; but Hughes cuts to a close shot of him, eyes closed, framed tightly and trapped behind bars, and we realise that for all his bravado, he is as much a victim as the others.

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The film is worst when it is most generic – Bender’s ‘escape’ from the storeroom he is confined to, his sexual ‘banter’ (which now would be sexual harassment) with Claire, the dope smoking scene and so on; at these times it is very dated. But when it is focused on delving into the reality of life for these characters, it far surpasses in quality the teen movies which preceded it. The conversation between the two most interesting characters, Andy the jock and Allison the basket-case, in which they both confess the realities of their home lives (‘… they ignore me…’) is beautifully understated given the genre from which it comes. Likewise, the only partially-resolved ending; there doesn’t appear to be any guarantee that these five students will still be friends on Monday. Such details make this film still worth watching even now.

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.

Rabbit in your Headlights

Rabbit in your Headlights is a song by UNKLE, featuring vocals by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Released in 1998, the video was made by Jonathan Glazer, who has also made videos for Massive Attack and Blur. These are all more-or-less indie bands, at least in spirit, so we might expect an ‘interpretative’, quite artistic, reading of the song which fits the indie ethos or ideology. It will probably be less reliant on the genre conventions we would expect to see in the more defined genres of rock, metal, chart pop and so on.

The video takes place in one location – a busy road ina  city, late at night. The darkness suits the vulnerable, minor key tone of the song. The main – only, really – character soon appears – a very disturbed man, wearing a heavy coat, walking up the middle of the road.

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He is captured in low, diagonal angles, suggesting that he is quite weird, off-balance, and intimidating. The palette is dull and dingy, again reinforcing the moody tone of the song. HE is talking to himself and we maintain a mid-shot focus on him by tracking the camera backwards as he walks, almost making (intimidating) direct address with us. The background is blurred out to make sure the audience keeps focused on this strange individual. We can hear him shout and hear the diegetic sound of the traffic above the music; the song is certainly not the only sound we can hear, and this makes the world or diegesis of the video more convincing. Likewise, we occasionally shift perspective or point of view, sometimes going inside the cars as they pass him.

When the first car hits him, it is a shock to the audience because it is filmed in a very wide shot which lets us see the whole thing. The foley sound of the smash adds to this effect.

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Our sympathise start to shift at this point; when the drivers drive past, looking down at the man without sympathy, we start to feel sorry for him.

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We start to realise that the narrative is based on a binary opposition between this man and the rest of the world, the ‘normal’ world represented by the drivers, cocooned within their cars. This is a conventional indie representation- the idea that the ‘independent’ people – those who are a bit strange or alternative – are victimised by the ‘straight’ members of society.

And yet, the man gets up, again and again, as he gets hit by more cars. He eventually throws his coat off and makes himself even more vulnerable. Throughout all of this, he is framed in the middle of the frame, while the cars are shown speeding past in blurred motion, suggesting that they are fast but transitory – only he is permanent, sharply rendered and memorable.

Eventually, he transcends, or disappears, holding his arms out in Christ-like cruciform.

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The idea appears to be that he has reached a higher level of consciousness through maintaining his own direction, his own way of being, rather than being like everyone else; he has managed to maintain his individuality. This is a very typical ideology in indie, rock and pop music (and indeed, it is one of the underpinning ideologies of Western culture.)

What are Music Videos for?

Miley’s video for Wrecking Ball is horrible, the kind of thing that makes you feel like a worse human being for having watched it. It has no redeeming features that I can think of, and as a teacher I am well used to finding silver linings where none actually exist. Still, we need to talk about some music video, and this is the one that has been getting attention this week, so let’s have at it. It’s almost certainly entirely inappropriate for younger viewers, but, as I’ve indicated, I think it’s actually inappropriate for all of humanity and I can’t think of any reason why young people should be protected any more than the rest of us. So, here y’go:

Before we even get to the video, we would do well to recap on what’s been going on in Miley-land over the last few years. It’s a familiar story by now – like Justin, or the other Justin, or Britney, or Christina, she’s had to make the transition from child star to adult star. Or rather (like Bieber) she’s in mid-transition, and she’s not being too subtle about it.  Sex appeal has long been a favourite marketing tool in all sectors of the entertainment industry and pop music in particular would barely exist without it. Ever since MTV was founded in 1981, pop music has been, arguably, a primarily visual medium. Not that looking a certain way wasn’t always important, but once a music video became a necessary component of any marketing campaign, it’s commonly been said that appearance is more important than musicality. Certainly, the biggest eighties stars – Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen – had very powerful visual images in a way that seventies, pre-video era, stars  – Pink Floyd, Simon and Garfunkel, The Eagles – did not.

So, it’s hardly surprising that Miley is focused more on looks and behaviour than music. When we think of Michael Jackson, we think of the moonwalk, the single jewelled glove, the hat, the silhouette pose. Quite possibly, we think of this more than his music. These are the icons, the signs with which his persona is constructed; to his audience, they are what he is. Miley is in search of her own signs, the things which will define her (and which can be used to market her.) She is trying for a very slightly punky image – short hair, a few piercings, a reasonable number of tattoos in visible locations. Mostly, though, she has chosen two visual symbols to shape her persona; the tongue and the twerk. Conveniently for us, she did both at once at the Video Music Awards this year:

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The supposed attraction of the twerk seems pretty obvious. What the tongue is supposed to mean, I have no idea – is it mean to be sexual? Playful? a bit crazy? It even has its own website and yet, as a signifier, it seems strangely empty.

And that emptiness brings us to ‘Wrecking Ball.’ The song is based around a simple extended metaphor wherein Miley is the titular ‘Wrecking Ball’ – she wrecked her relationship because she ‘never hit so hard in love’, or something. (Although she also sings that ‘All you ever did was wreck me’ so I’m not actually sure who’s wrecking who in this song. There is definitely a lot of wrecking going on, though.) Now, there are a few options when making a video. You can go with a live performance, much beloved of rock groups because of the authenticity it lends them but not so much the pop fraternity. There’s the interpretative video, often with no obvious link to the song’s lyrics, also very popular but perhaps more likely to appeal to those on the artsier end of the scale – indie bands and those targeted at older or niche audiences. Finally, there are narrative videos, those which tell a story – generally, a story which is at least partially told in the song’s lyrics. This is often popular with younger audiences.

There’s another option, and it’s generally the worst one. It’s the absolutely literal approach, where you take whatever is mentioned in the song’s lyrics and film it. This literal approach is generally regarded as being so clumsy and inept that it spawned a series of internet pastiches. Here’s a good one:

So, a song called ‘Wrecking Ball’ needs a video. I know – let’s have a wrecking ball in it. And it’s Miley Cyrus, so let’s have her naked on the wrecking ball. There is some departure from absolute literalness when we have her licking a hammer (the tongue again!) and when we see her crying at the start, in a pretty obvious intertextual echo of Sinead O’Connor’s wonderful video for ‘Nothing Compares 2 U.’ Basically, though, it is actually just a wrecking ball, and if nothing else, that seems to betray something of a lack of imagination.

What are videos actually for? Most obviously, to offer a visual component to the artist’s sound; to give them a visual image. Miley’s offering here is trying to make her seem both very overtly sexual (naked on the wrecking ball, writhing around whilst maintaining very direct and confident eye contact with the camera) and very vulnerable and innocent (the crying at the start, the colour symbolism of her white clothes. When she’s wearing clothes.) I think these two representations are inconsistent and clash horribly. Videos can also be used to change an artist’s image, and obviously Miley is trying to construct a new persona for herself; adult, sexual, edgy and challenging. But again, there are two opposing ideas or representations of what it means to be ‘adult’ in this video – there’s serious, emotional Miley (crying at the camera) and sexual Miley (writhing around pointlessly on the floor and, both worryingly and ridiculously, licking a hammer.) The result suggests that she has no actual idea what ‘adults’ are like.The signification is all over the place- the innocence of the white clothes clashes with the exaggerated sexual writhing; the supposedly authentic vulnerability of the crying is contradicted by her heavy make-up and very stylized image; the violence of the wrecking ball is negated by her very artificial pose while she’s on the thing. The nudity is utterly gratuitous. And the hammer-licking is possibly the dumbest thing I’ve seen in a video ever. (Incidentally, I think that’s the fourth time in this post I’ve had to use some version of the phrase ‘licking a hammer.’ I’m not very happy about that.)

Not that Miley will care. Firstly, I’m about a thousand years and one gender removed from her target audience. Secondly, the other thing videos can do, perhaps the main thing, is to get attention. That’s hard to do in a world which is absolutely saturated with media, all competing for ever-decreasing fractions of an audience’s attention. And the video has most certainly done that, managing to stir up all the fake outrage which certain segments of the media excel at. Here’s the Daily Mail being outraged whilst posting all the most revealing shots from the video so their audience can be outraged and titillated all at the same time. Pure synergy and they even manage to work in promotion for One Direction and Dr Marten boots. The single has gone to number one, the video has 143 million views on YouTube (that’s a lot) and Miley is still firmly in the public eye. Assuming there is no such thing as bad publicity (I’m not sure that’s actually true, but still…), her video has worked perfectly.

AngryFarmCandyBirdsCrushville

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.