Friday, April 19, 2013

Computer Games and Visibility

I am not what you could call a “Gamer” by any stretch of the imagination. The only home video game system I had as a kid was the late 70’s early 80’s the epic commercial failure - RCA Studio II “home TV programming system”. It was about as basic and basic gets.

It had some simple built in games like ping pong, bowling and a very basic drawing/doodling program, and you could play others off of cartridges that you plugged into the console.   

During this time, my parents, were going through a phase in their approach to child rearing, I like to refer to as their “Stalinist thugs who didn't believe in joy” era. Hence their idea of fun computer games was essentially limited to the “schoolhouse” series of cartridges,

The 'games' included things like "History Quiz" and of course, Dad’s favorite , one thrilling and very exciting little gem called "Math Fun"...

Now I am not making this up. It was having to play “Math Fun” in tandem with one particularly incompetent 5th grade teacher that is largely responsible for my rabid aversion to mathematics which persists to this day.

A few years later my Dad noticed my interest in the works of the late, great Science Fiction/Comedy author Douglas Adams, (in whose honor this blog is named.) , and for Christmas in 1984 got me the interactive computer game for Adams’ book “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”.

In 1984 to say a computer game was “interactive” meant the display was all text. There were no graphics or sounds. The game roughly followed the basic outline of the story and featured a series of puzzles and quests, the solutions to which, were largely determined by actions and choices that you, the player made over the course the game.

I thought it was brilliant, and was hooked instantly. Even with no sounds or graphics I found the story, and the fact that my path through that story was in part determined by ME, to be irresistible. I would spend hours and hours on it.

Earlier this year, my Dad shared a story of how he and my Mother were concerned about the amount of time I was spending playing the game, and how it might be affecting my study skills. So late one night, after I had gone to bed, my Dad booted up the game and tried to play it. After a spending a futile two hours trying to get past the first puzzle, he told my Mom that if I could solve the problems in the game they needn't worry about my cognitive abilities.

HHG2TG  Game Screenshot
There was one real side effect of all this though. As a result, of being bored by the games we had with sound and animation, and getting practically addicted to a text-only experience, I never really got the “video game bug. “ 

Fast forward 15 years. While living in South Korea, my boyfriend at the time, introduced me to my first “modern” computer game. It was “Oddworld – Abe’s Odyssey” . It combined state of the art (for 1997) graphics with interactive story telling and it had a soundtrack. We would end up spending entire Saturdays playing it non-stop.

But that is pretty much where my experience with computer games ended. I have never owned a playstation, Nintendo or any other kind of gaming system. I haven’t really followed what was going on in the gaming world , and for the most part could mention only a handful of popular games, based on nothing more than having seen television commercials for them.

And, being honest, I didn't really know or care what I was missing. Computer games really were not something I was interested in or paid any attention to.

Then last year, Games makers Bioware and Electionic Arts (EA) released the third installment of their Mass Effect trilogy of games. For those of you who are not familiar with this, the “Mass Effect” games tell the story of the crew of the spaceship SSV Normandy, who have to save both Earth and the galaxy from being destroyed by a race of synthetic life forms known as “Reapers”.

The first two installments (Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2) take you through a series of adventures in the run up to what in the third game is an all out galactic war to save pretty much …well, everybody from the big bad reapers.

I immediately ran out and purchased the whole trilogy. Not because I was interested in shooting big ugly aliens and blowing up various pieces of space hardware, but rather because of news reports about the new customization options that were introduced with Mass Effect 3. In the first two games, you could always pick what gender wanted the main character to be.

There is both a Male and Female Commander Shepard. As such you were able to flirt with and have a relationship with, a whole selection of other characters in the games. But whereas flirting could go pretty much any way you wanted, (Male, Female, Human, Lizzard, whatever…) actually having a romantic relationship, was limited in games 1 and 2 just to opposite genders.  
Male & Female Commander Shepard

All That changed in Mass Effect 3. In the final installment your Shepard has the option for a romantic relationship with either a male or female partner.   You know what's coming...

 Right on cue, we have the oh-so-predictable outrage on the American wingnut conservative right….
WED 04 APR 2012 7:49PM GMT / 3:49PM EDT / 12:49PM PDT 
EA is standing up for same sex relationships in games despite outrage from some

EA has been inundated in recent weeks with whatGamesIndustry International understands to be "several thousand" letters and emails protesting the inclusion of same sex or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) content in its video games, most notably Mass Effect 3 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. When asked, EA confirmed that this has indeed been occurring, and unsurprisingly, EA has no plans to censor any of its games.

"Every one of EA's games includes ESRB content descriptors so it's hard to believe anyone is surprised by the content. This isn't about protecting children, it's about political harassment," Jeff Brown, VP of corporate communications told us.

The letters have been directed to EA's executive team, creative heads, its board of directors and just about anyone at a high level. Many of them threaten to boycott EA's titles if the publisher refuses to remove same-sex relationship content.
So essentially,  when I heard  the  American Taliban had it’s  knickers in a twist  over two soldiers of the same sex in a computer game falling in love while they save the galaxy,  how could I not run right out and buy it?   If for no other reason  than as  a vote of support  to  the makers of the game for  designing  inclusive content.

The discs sat on my bookcase for  three months  until  about two months ago I noticed them and figured  I may as well  try playing the game.   I installed  the needed odds and ends on my laptop and thought as I wasn't really all that interested in seriously playing the game  I'd just  jump in and start  with  Mass Effect 3.  I was intrigued to see who  made up the  voice cast .

Simply put the production values  were  incredible,  This is not  what I thought a computer game was.  This is  essentially a motion picture that you  are part of.     The thing  that  really grabbed me and would not let go,  was the story.   Just like in a  really good movie  you find yourself actually caring about what happens to  these characters.   Then there is the  added element of  the "customization options" that has the Wingnuts and on the right  so upset.     

The story arc  for  a same sex relationship is something you have to deliberately choose.  There isn't anyway you can accidentally  end up Gay in Mass Effect 3.    But  just like any good, believable  romantic story,  the same sex romantic plot line doesn't  force itself into the narrative.  If you choose to "go that way"  it progresses  as naturally  as you would expect any love story to,  

Only this one  also involves  blowing stuff up and saving the galaxy.  

I am thoroughly  enjoying my trip through the Mass Effect Universe and plan later this Summer when I have the time,  to go back and play the first two installments in the series.   I have no plans to become a "gamer", but  I can;t help but  be  grateful to  EA and Bioware for having the courage to make a game that  sends a clear message to  Gays and Lesbians  that they exist in the virtual  world too. 

1 comment:

Biki said...

Role palying games where one can choose their gender are quite popular with trans folk. It gives us a chance to be us, even if its only in a digital world.

I agree with your on how brave it is for those games to allow same sex content. The Sims allows this as well, and caused the same out roar of complaints by the xtian taliban. But they stuck to their guns, ignored the loud vocal few and business continued on. Along with the world spinning, the seas staying put and no visible sign of the dark lord.

When the kids were at home I played loads of games, but the last few years for whatever reason I'm playing less and less. I dont honestly remember the last time I booted up my nintendo ds.