Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Look. Don’t Touch.

Like Marxist criticism, the most successful Feminist critique of a game involves analyzing how the range of player functions that affect female characters directly or indirectly reveal the operations of patriarchy. When the player is encouraged or forced to play in a way that depicts men as strong, rational, protective and women as weak, emotional, submissive, and nurturing, then the game can be said to support and reinforce patriarchal genders roles and ideologies. Patriarchal values work to oppress women, and all feminist theory and criticism works to promote women‘s equality. A Feminist analysis can become more complex when finding examples of actions toward women if a game doesn’t feature any women or the game allows for limited interaction with women. Writing essays about such games often leads to finding evidence by absence. In other words, a Feminist critic’s central piece of evidence may be what can’t be done to women instead of what can.

BioShock depicts women as weak, emotional, submissive, and nurturing and men as strong, and protective thus conforming to traditional patriarchal gender roles through its fiction, narrative setting, and the limited range of interactivity with the female characters.

In the first twenty minutes of playing BioShock, the player is forced to exist through the masculine context of a first person shooter when he/she acquires the pistol. Guns are commonly thought of a phallic symbols of masculine power, and being set in a game and a world where the perspective is aligned down the sights of one’s weapon centers the point of view to one of violence. As I have delineated in the New Classical essay on BioShock, shooting is the primary function. In other words, shooting, or in general combat, is the action the game achieves significance and meaning from. To beat BioShock, players have to be ready to fight not indirectly, not with words or emotions, but in physical, violent, direct combat. This male centered point of view is compounded with the idea of the male gaze: the idea that the man looks, and the women is looked at. Under the male gaze, the man has the power to define, explain, and take control of the world around him. And in BioShock, the player (who may have passively assumed the role of the male character at the game’s outset for lack of an alternative) actively controls the world of Rapture through their directed gaze. All interactive objects in the game get “named” when the player aims their view at it, or “gazes” at it. And without regard or regret, the player takes whatever he wants. Wine, chips, power bars, money, EVE, ect. With every item the player gains access to a short description and instructions on how to use it, thus the player effectively names, explains, and takes control over the world of Rapture under his/her gaze.

It starts with the commodification of the Little Sisters. As I’ve detailed in my Marxist essay on BioShock, the player is taught to think of the Little Sisters as an object of financial gain. In this case, it’s not money that is up for grabs, but the more rare Adam. Like the patriarchal male, the Big Daddys have no other function, but to wander around Rapture protecting these Little Sisters from harm. It is clear how the male/strong female/weak patriarchal ideologies are exhibited here. When a Big Daddy is removed from the picture, the little sister is left as a prize for the taking. Literally, the player snatches the girl up in one hand like an object and proceeds to either save or harvest her. With either choice, the Little Sisters resists crying out “No. NO. No!” In these mini scenes, the male protagonist overpowers the Little Sister, paying no mind to her cries. Even those who consider themselves kind hearted choosing to save these Litter Sisters, by repeatedly ignoring the “no” the player asserts his/her dominance through force. The choice of rescue or harvest is what many believe to be the central moral choice in BioShock. Regardless, the manner in which the player obtains this power of choice reveals a flaw or weakness in Tenenbaum’s character that unfortunately stretches the believability of the plot while reinforcing patriarchal ideologies.

Initial impression of Tenenbaum depict her as a woman whose life style flies in the face of the patriarchal woman. As a scientist, Tenenbaum is both logical and rational. Furthermore, when first introduced in BioShock, she is seen firing a pistol at a splicer that was hopping to harvest a conveniently unprotected Little Sister. This initiative gives her character a clear sense of protectiveness, another quality that is attributed to males in traditional patriarchal views. However, even within this initial encounter, Tenenbaum begins to artificially morph falling into the patriarchal gender role of women.

As we learn throughout the game, Tenenbaum is very protective of her Little Sisters. And like her introduction scene shows, she’s even willing to fire upon others who seek to harm her little ones. I find it strange that just moments after firing at one man’s attempt to reap precious Adam from a Little Sister, Tenenbaum becomes unwilling to fire at the next (the protagonist/player). While this change of heart benefits the player, the shift in Tenenbaum’s behavior is clear. Instead of defending the Little Sister with her pistol once more, Tenenbaum attempts to convince the player not to harvest the Little Sister by appealing to their emotions: “have you no heart.” Appealing to emotions further positions Tenenbaum into a more traditional patriarchal female role. By giving the player the power to rescue or harvest, Tenenbaum effectively relinquishes power over the very last thing she seeks to protect down in Rapture. In such a short period, Tenenbaum moves from exhibiting the active role of the protector, to the passive and submissive role of one who watches as her fate is decided by a man .

Throughout the rest of the game Tenenbaum guides the player through various tasks and objectives. She tells the player what to do, and the player does it. Simply by playing through the game, the player fulfils the typical patriarchal male role of a strong, proactive, decisive force. A obvious counter argument to this assertion is that all the characters in the game communicate through messages on the ACCU VOX personal voice recorders including males characters like Ryan, Atlas, and Cohen. This is true, however, the difference between Tenenbaum and all the other male characters is, the player never meets Tenenbaum face to face, and there isn’t any significant interaction between them according to the hierarchy of functions (see New Critical essay on BioShock). When the player first meets Tenenbaum, she’s positioned on a balcony high above the floor that removers her from the scene and obscures her from the player. The balcony also prevents the player from getting close to her and standing face to face as equals; a stance of equality. Towards the end of the game, when the player is rescued and brought to the hidden orphanage where the cured little sisters live, Tenenbaum can only be seen in a dark room and obscured by glass. When players finally meet Ryan, Atlas, and Cohen, it is face to face. Also, the player can interact with these male characters through shooting or some other act of violence, which is BioShock’s primary function. Even though changing the world of Rapture through physical violence supports the traditional view of males according to the patriarchy, shooting and violence is still the most meaningful and significant action for BioShock.

Tenenbaum’s acknowledgement of her femininity is revealed gradually through her voice messages. In these messages, she comments on her personal, internal transformations in regard to her feelings towards the Little Sisters. Tenenbaum acknowledges that she is a woman, and she recognizes her maternal instincts: “These children I brutalized have awoken something inside that for most is beautiful and natural, but in me, is an abomination…my maternal instinct.” By the end of the game, Tenenbaum becomes a regular “Mother Goose” as Fontaine refers to her as in a derogatory way. By embracing her emotions and assuming a strong nurturing role that not only takes care of these little girls but the player as well, Tenenbaum fulfils the traditional patriarchal role of woman. The Mother Goose name stems from the collection of stories and fairy tales that are most known for such stories as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. Though these stories have been told, tweaked, and rewritten several times, all versions feature women that are virginal, submissive, weak, and dependant on the heroic, possibly violent, actions of a male character in order to save them. In this way, the Mother Goose stories reinforce the same patriarchal values that are evident in Tenenbaum’s transformed character.

Rapture is a place where all offensive, non-aggressive plasmids are advertised toward men, not women, through cartoons advertisements that reinforce patriarchal gender roles and the overpowering of women through force. In the short cartoon advertisements for the decoy, telekinesis, winter blast, and vortex trap plasmids, a man is depicted as using plamids against women, some of which are even depicted in house clothes wearing an apron or aggressively wielding a rolling pin. Images like these show that for the people of Rapture, women are expected to work in the home doing tasks like cooking and cleaning. In the telekinesis cartoon, a women is shown in clothes that reflect “going out on the town.” However, in the cartoon she’s throwing a wine bottle at the male character. We can infer from the character’s expressions that the women is out of control and therefore probably intoxicated and the man is just an innocent victim of abuse. Perhaps, what is worse about this particular cartoon is how the short male figure uses force to counteract these women. Upon retaliation, the males have a smug “you had it coming” expression on their faces. In the examples where men are attacked with plasmids, they are dressed more formally reflecting jobs and activities that exist outside the home. The men that are shown range from football players, police men, (well dressed) thieves, and business men in suits. Though both men and women at attacked in these cartoons, the subtle differences in their depictions expose the patriarchal workings.

Rapture is a place, perhaps an all too familiar place, where science and surgery are used to bolster one’s cosmetic appeal. It’s a place where women like Diane McClinktock looses all attention from powerful men like Andrew Ryan after suffering physical damage to her face: “Ryan didn’t come to see me since the New Year’s attack. Not once.” And later, after being mutilated by Steinman, Diane is stood up by just about everyone: “Stood up! Again…Second time this week.” It’s a world where doctors like Steinman convince women like Diane with promises of beauty: “He told me once the scar tissue was gone, he was going to fix me right up. Make me prettier than any girl I’ve ever seen. He’s sweet all right.” Dr. Steinman revealed in one of his private recordings that he has grown “tired” of surgically altering each female patient to the same “ideal” form of beauty: “I’ve spent my entire surgical career creating the same tired shapes, over and over again: the upturned nose, the cleft chin, the ample bosom.” For Rapture’s women beauty is serious business as evident by the words smeared in blood on the walls in at least three separate locations within the Medical Pavilion: “Adam denies us any excuse for not being beautiful.” And the pursuit of this beauty is endless and empty as Steinman admits: “I am beautiful yes. Look at me, what could I do to make my features finer? With Adam and my scalpel, I have been transformed. But is there not something better?” In the end, after being angry at the “bandits and terrorists” that caused the attack in the first place, Diane contemplates telling them how they “ruined everything” for her. She practically admits that without her looks, she’s nothing. She considers confronting the responsible people not for justice or revenge, but so that maybe she’d “feel better.” Once again, the emotional woman falls in line with patriarchal view of women.

Rapture is a place where women like Anya Andersdotter uses sex to drag information out of men: “I had to go jungle-style with that filthy ape for three weeks, but he finally spilled the beans.” It’s a place where honest business propositions and scientific ventures like those of Tenenbaum’s, are scandalously mixed with sex: “Why a guy like Fontaine would waste his time with that spooky Kraut when he could be getting’ the gravy from any dish he chooses is beyond the understanding of this paparazzi” - Paparazzi. It’s a place where beauty makes you a women, and if you don’t have that, then you’re just as well off as the monstrous splicers. It’s a place where women are forced to play in a man’s world according to his rules, and there’s nothing the player can do about it. And what’s worst of all, Rapture is a place that is like our own in many ways.


Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

Sorry. Had a few typographical errors. Reposted:

I liked your article in many respects - it fits very well in a (constrained, which is fine!) vision of oppressivist feminist discourse. Your examples are pointed and concise, and I think they serve exactly the focus of your article.

However, and I add this critique for the purpose of opening up dialogue and not simply criticism for itself, I'm not sure how this article allows me to understand what makes a video game meaningful for a player? I understand that this is not the point of your article of course, but if I'm to get any insight into the nature of video games and their relation to real human players, it must be from the perspective of a real, living, human player and not from the perspective of a discursive judge. To make my point more clear, where is the insight that would come from an analysis of the experience of playing this game? The same exact game could be taken and re-analyzed through the discourse of misandry - and would yield just as few understandings. Put differently: different players will have different experiences of this game, and to purely criticize through interpretations of its symbolism does not yield any new understandings.

What seems most important to me is asking the question, "If we accept this interpretation of feminism and its criticisms of BioShock, how do people experience the game? Can a woman thoroughly enjoy the game? Be transformed by it? Can she recognize her own gendered life in terms of male oppression? What about men? Is this just another chauvinistic romp into the domain of boys? Do some men find the game an oversimplification of maleness? What enjoyment or wish-fulfillment is granted by BioShock? Is that a gendered thing?" The list of worthwhile questions could go on forever.

I suppose the question remains, what was your point? Did you haphazardly choose a random game that you chose a random discourse to attack it from? Or did that choice come from a deep-seated discomfort with the kind of perspective that this game offers? If it's the former reason - it seemingly renders such analyses meaningless, because they have to include some kind of human stake or motivation.

I've written too much. I just thought that this article was good, and needed a critical response since nobody has bothered to comment yet. I hope my suggestions haven't been too incisive - they are not critiques of your work, but critiques of a more general problem suffered by discursive analyses.

KirbyKid said...


I'm glad that you took the time to say everything that you did. Your cogent comments will allow me to respond to the issues that you raise all the more clearly. Here I go...
(I'll take it paragraph by paragraph)


P2: You're right. Looking at the game from an interpretive stance will inevitably exclude some of the possible ways a player might read/interpret some of the material. While this is true of the fictional/story/plot elements I addressed, when I discussed the limitations built into the structures of the game brings up an area that isn't up to debate or interpretation. What I'm saying here is the game limits the players from the interacting with the female characters in a way that only allows for players to act in a way that supports the claims raised in the essay.

I wanted to stay as far away from analyzing plot and "story" because those areas do lend themselves to a significant degree of interpretation. I wanted to detail the limitation of the players interactivity to support my case. However, BioShock is what many would call a "story game" meaning that it's story (plot, premise, narrative) is what people value most from the game (a result that falls right in line with the aims of design a game according to Western Game design). While writing these essays, I went through a moment of doubt. From my research and the nature of the game BioShock, I knew my Marxist and Feminist essays would be my weakest in that they would have such issues that you have pointed out. But, I decided to try anyway if nothing else but for the challenge.

P3: You proposed excellent questions. I want to start by saying that (ignoring my interpretations of the games fictional elements) if we look only at the interaction allowed between the player and female characters, and measure the level of interaction according to the hierarchy of functions in the game, then completing (beating) BioShock means, in many ways, accepting and internalizing certain values and ideologies. As a player that is trapped in a game forced to play by the games rules, when the game's rules say "act like a chauvinist" then the player has no choice (even if they secretly resist in their own mind).

What I tried to say in my essay was, when you get through beating BioShock, (along with learning ins and outs of the game) you also learn a specific way to treat women. Like the saying, you can't go swimming without getting wet; you can't journey through Rapture without having some of the values and ideologies rub off/influence you in some way. How can we tell if it's actually gotten under your skin? You beat the game didn't you (I assume)? Also, the rules say so.

P4: I was disturbed by the world of Rapture (as should we all be for one reason or another). At the same time I was intrigued on how the game rubbed off on me in its subtle and (previously) invisible way.

Thanks again

Bobby said...

I don't know if you did this on purpose or it was just a slip, but you called Diane McClinktock "McCuntock." Regardless, it seems inappropriate in the context of such a discussion.

KirbyKid said...


Thanks for catching that typo.