Tag Archives: video games

Introducing… the Media Mavens podcast

It finally happened! After mulling it over and considering it for months, I’ve started a podcast with my good friend Riley!

Media Mavens logo

It’s a biweekly podcast about pop culture – video games, tv, movies, books. The plan is to have the first half of the podcast be a discussion of all the media we’ve been consuming recently, and then have the second half be a more in-depth discussion and analysis of a particular piece of media or media topic.

The first episode is just Riley and I, and it’s more about introductions than analysis, but in the future we plan to have guests on to talk with us.

You can find the podcast at https://mediamavens.simplecast.fm/ or on iTunes or Stitcher.

I hope you give it a listen!

Censorship in Video Games

There’s currently a movement going on in games (no, not that one) called 1 Million Gamers Strong for Japanese Gaming. It’s a petition to a number of Japanese developers to a) release their games in the West and b) not modify their game’s content for release in the West. On the surface I don’t see anything wrong with this. Other than the name, because based on the petition it should be called something more along the lines of 7 Thousand Gamers Strong for Japanese Gaming. But otherwise, it’s cool. I personally won’t sign because I don’t care that much about any of the games that aren’t being released or think any changes are altering the fundamental nature of the games, but to each their own. Some of the changes being rallied against are: lack of release of Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 in North America, removal of skimpy optional costumes for a 13 year old character in Xenoblade Chronicles X, and removal of a close-up butt slap of R Mika in Street Fighter V. For more examples and a look at censorship vs. localization check out this investigative article.

R Mika Street Fighter

What I do have a problem with is who is being blamed for Japanese games being modified and how easily the word censorship is thrown around. Big surprise, the supporters of this campaign (who seem to have some overlap with that other gaming movement) are blaming the evil games media and those darn SJWs for any changes to games that come out of Japan. Will some people criticize a game for over-sexualizing female characters? Sure. Do developers have to listen to those critics? Nope. So, while I think petitioning a Japanese developer to not change things is all well and good, assigning blame to people who have no control over the games is not.


Let’s talk a little bit about the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which can influence games to modify their content. Its rating system encompasses guidance about age-appropriateness, content, and interactive elements in Canada and the US. It was created in 1994, as a response to concerns about violence in video games. Though it has no legal authority to enforce retailers sales policies, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony all refuse to allow games rated Adults Only (AO) to be published on their platforms and most retailers won’t stock these games either. AO ratings are given to games that are found to contain high amounts of content that is violent, profane, sexual or pornographic. Because many game companies and retailers won’t publish or sell AO games, it’s in the best commercial interest for games to not be rated AO. So, sometimes the most extreme content gets removed. Examples of this include Indigo Prophecy removing full frontal female nudity to obtain an M rating in 2005, and Manhunt 2 removing some of the more graphic violence to obtain an M rating on consoles in 2007. Few games have been given an AO rating, though funnily enough there’s one that I did QA for and captured footage to submit to the ESRB on the list.

Game companies can get in trouble for misrepresenting the content of their game to get a lower rating, and in Canada the law prohibits the sale of M or AO-rated games to people under a certain age. But there’s no law that says Microsoft can’t publish or sell an AO rated game. If there was, that would be actual censorship. But as it stands, these actions are voluntary. If people have problems with these kinds of changes, that’s fine, but blame is often miscast. When the ESRB was started in 1994 no one had heard of Anita Sarkeesian and the phrase “gamers are over” had yet to embed itself in the minds of scared gaming fans everywhere.

Slippery Slope

One of the arguments that gets brought up often is that game modifications (not calling it censorship, because it’s not) are a slippery slope. If a developer feels pressured to take out a gratuitous ass close-up today (though since developers stay mostly silent on this issue we can’t even be sure that they are feeling pressured), what changes will they have to make tomorrow? Here’s the thing… games have been modified to take cultural differences into account since the beginning. Sexual content has been removed from games that come from Japan to North America. Violence has been removed from games that go from America to Japan. Drug references have been removed from games sold in Australia. Some games made in Japan just don’t get released here – Mother, Policenauts. It wasn’t due to delicate Western sensibilities, it just didn’t work out that way.

xenoblade chronicles x lynlee

Nintendo specifically has a long history of modifying games to bring onto their consoles. Deja Vu, a game which initially came out for Mac in 1985 had visual references to alcohol, drugs and blood removed from the game. Maniac Mansion, first released for DOS in 1987, removed all sexual innuendo (and as a result was a lot less funny) on the NES. Super Castlevania IV (1991) removed crucifixes and clothed a naked statue for the North American release of the game (compared to the Japanese version). Reign of Fire (2002) was cut in order to obtain a Teen ESRB rating for the Gamecube, while it was left alone and rated Mature on other consoles. Nintendo has historically been a company that sells itself as family-friendly and makes changes to games to make them both culturally and age appropriate. Small changes like removing an optional skimpy costume or changing a character’s age seems exactly like something Nintendo of America would do and consistent with their history – no SJW boogeyman necessary.

It’s not just Nintendo. Let’s take one of my favourite games – Snatcher, developed by Konami. Between its release in Japan in 1988 and its release in North America in 1994 a ton of changes were made. A female character (who you see almost naked in the Japanese version) has her age changed from 14 to 18 and appears less naked in the NA version. The naked breast of another female character was covered up. Also, a controversial in-game meal of whale meat was changed to buffalo meat. Why? Because Japan and North America are culturally different and find different things weird. There were also a ton of changes made for copyright reasons so Konami didn’t get sued.

So, we’ve got a character’s age changed and a naked breast removed in Snatcher in 1994. And now a character’s age has been changed in Bravely Default in 2014 and some bare asscheeks shifted out of frame in Street Fighter V in 2015. Hmm… 21 years, exact same types of changes to games coming from Japan to North America. This slippery slope doesn’t appear to be all that slippery. In fact, it seems more like a plain.


If people want to petition Japanese game companies to not modify their content when bringing it to North America, that’s A-okay with me. I have no problem with it (though to be honest, if you’re really that upset about not being able to put a 13 year old video game character in a bikini I may question your life choices). However, target your energy at the companies actually making the changes, don’t scapegoat the “hostile” media and the mean feminists who may be critical of the games. People will criticize games – whether it’s about sexualized characters, bad writing, or shitty game mechanics – and that’s a good thing. If we want video games to be accepted as an art form, protected from censorship, we need to accept that criticism is an important part of art. Criticism is what pushes a medium forward and asks it to be better. It’s what relates video games to the rest of the world. If gaming companies change their content or don’t want to release their games here because they can’t handle criticism or want to avoid it altogether, that’s on them.

Kinzie Kensington and the Insufferable Genius

This post is actually the basis of my latest video, but if you’re someone who would rather read than watch, here you go!

Sherlock Holmes, Cloud Strife, Tony Stark, Dr. Manhattan, Rust Cohle, Gregory House, Franics York Morgan, The Doctor, Will Graham, Geralt of Rivia.

Robert Downey Jr.  as Tony Stark (Ironman)

All very popular fictional characters. All prodigies in their own right. And all, to put it bluntly, assholes.

The trope of the insufferable genius is a fairly common one in fiction. These characters don’t conform to social conventions, they’re misanthropic, and are often outright insulting to the people around them. They’re also all gifted in some manner. Whether it’s brilliant powers of deduction, supernatural ability, or amazing physical prowess, something makes these characters special and better than others. This lets them get away with being arrogant jerks. They don’t get kicked to the curb by their fictional counterparts, and the audience tends to outright adore them.

Also, in case it wasn’t obvious, they’re all men. (Also, white and straight but that’s a whole other discussion).

Insufferable genius is not a role that women get to play very often. While being antisocial and unconforming is often seen as charmingly roguish for men, it’s not something women can get away with so easily. Female characters can be brilliant or powerful but can’t be too arrogant about it or be too unfriendly lest they get labelled an unlikable bitch.

Gillian Anderson in The Fall

Gillian Anderson’s character in The Fall is a female character who comes close to fulfilling this trope. She’s a brilliant detective who’s not afraid to break a few rules or call out others on their bullshit. While she’s still generally respected, she does get more flack for it than a male would, as she’s always quick to point out. Kara Thrace is another character who could fall into the Insufferable Genius category. She’s a brilliant pilot who doesn’t like to play by the rules and doesn’t care what people think of her. However, to be fair Starbuck was originally written as a man. These aren’t the characters I want to talk about right now.

Kinzie Kensington from Saints Row 4

The character I do want to talk about is from a video game series. Saint’s Row. It might be hard to imagine a great, stereotype-breaking female character coming from a game series that started as a Grand Theft Auto knockoff, but hear me out. It’s true that Saint’s Row scores a solid “needs improvement” when it comes to background female characters, but with major female characters, they do a surprisingly good job. First, the game features enough female characters that giving them some negative traits doesn’t have the side effect of painting all females with the same brush. One of these characters is the brilliant hacker, Kinzie Kensington.

Kinzie’s a hacking genius who knows more than most people and isn’t afraid to say so. She’s a self-confessed misanthrope who doesn’t go out of her way to endear herself to people. She doesn’t care that people don’t understand her technical jargon, just that the job gets done.

Now, Kinzie isn’t the main protagonist, you could argue that she was in Gat out of Hell, but honestly that was a bit phoned in. However, she does play a major part in both Saints Row 3 and 4. In Saints Row 4 she’s the voice you’re always hearing, leading you through the story, telling you what to do every step of the way because the protagonist doesn’t really know what she’s doing.

I really like Kinzie because she’s smart and she doesn’t care what other people think. She just wants to do what she needs to do, she’s not particularly concerned with being nice. She does fit the Insufferable Genius role, which really, women don’t get to play too often. So I just wanted to give a little bit of love to Kinzie Kensington, along with Volition for developing her.

If you’ve got any feedback, or suggestions for future videos, I’d love to hear them.

Fun or Addicting?

I’ve never been big on mobile gaming. When it comes to games, I always prefer to play on a big screen over a small one. This is also why I don’t enjoy handhelds. Even in situations where big screens are not available – say, while commuting to work – I prefer to read a book, listen to a podcast, or just look out the window and give my eyes a break from screens altogether. This isn’t to say that I never play mobile games. There are a few that got me quite hooked for a while. The problem is, they hooked me for the wrong reasons.

The first was Spirit Stones, a dungeon-crawly puzzler with colour-matching gameplay similar to Candy Crush and an added card evolution mechanic. The gameplay wasn’t particularly interesting, and any challenge seemed to be there to make you buy gems, but I really wanted to evolve all the cards to collect them all. I even spent a few bucks to buy gold so I could evolve more cards. It took me a while, a couple of months maybe, before I realized – Spirit Stones is not a fun game. It is an addicting game. All the dungeon levels are basically the same. 99% of the card evolutions give you trash that isn’t an upgrade over what you’re already using. It has the time (or money) based component that limits your play which is common among Free To Play games. Looking back, I’m a bit embarrassed of all the time I spent playing this game on my phone while watching Nip/Tuck on Netflix. A terrible game and a repugnant tv show, there must have been some self-loathing going on there. Eventually I stopped, deleted it from my phone, and never played again. Nothing about the game was fun, it just had constantly moving goalposts that kept me playing.

Spirit Stones

Yeah, don’t even get me started on the artwork.

Next came Cook, Serve, Delicious, a restaurant sim. While I’d rate this game 100x higher than Spirit Stones and it lacked insidious micro-transactions, it was still more addicting than fun. In game I’d do day after day of food service, trying to get my restaurant up to 5 stars (by now I had moved on to Gilmore Girls for my fix of TV I didn’t really need to pay attention to). The time management component of the game was challenging, and at first I actually was having fun. But once I was familiar with everything, I had my staple foods I’d rotate on the menu every day that I could prepare the fastest, and it became rather mechanical. What was interesting on day 6 was really just a chore on day 62 but I wanted that 5-star ranking. Eventually I got it, only to find out the game wasn’t done with me. More challenges lay in wait! By this time I had figured that the game was more addicting than fun though, so I took my 5 stars as an indication that I had beaten the game, deleted from my phone, and never played again.

The last game that got me in its clutches was Trivia Crack, and I think that name speaks for itself. While I’m actually a big fan of trivia, playing against strangers on my phone isn’t really comparable to trivia nights at a bar, or Trivial Pursuit in my living room with friends. Again, it was fun at first, but 2 weeks later when I had 10 different games on the go (or how ever many the time/money limit would allow me to have) and was checking to see if it was my turn every 10 minutes, I realized the compulsion to constantly check the game status was much stronger than the reward of getting to answer one or two questions (and then waiting for my turn again). So it too got deleted.

Now, I’m not saying that all mobile games are like this, or that only mobile games fall can into the addicting not fun category. I do think mobile caters to this type of game more than other platforms, but they can be found anywhere. In my 8 years of playing World of Warcraft I know at least a quarter of my time (more than that in the lulls before expansions) was spent doing things I found the opposite of fun just to get some dumb achievement. My blood still boils when I think about the 6 hours I spent collecting Noblegarden eggs to get some stupid fucking mount or something I probably never looked at again once I got it. This wasn’t fun at all, I was just addicted to collecting.

There are too many good games out there to spend time on ones that hook you with collecting or variable-interval incremental reinforcement rather than fun gameplay or story. I’m trying to make an effort to spend time on games I actually find fun, or meaningful, or thought-provoking because with such a huge selection of games available, why waste time on the junk?

Game Reviews by the Numbers

You visit Gamespot, IGN, or Ploygon and see a game has been reviewed and given a score of 8. But what does that mean? Is 8 a good score? Should I play it? I think an 8 is a very positive score, but others, who feel that big gaming sites work mainly within a 7-10 scale for big budget titles may think an 8 is not all that hot. First, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that big gaming sites only use the 7-10 part of the scale. Take Polygon’s reviews for XBox One titles, there are a number of scores for big budget games in the 4-6 range. Same with Gamespot.

The issue is that everything about a game review is subjective. From what aspects of the game a reviewer chooses to focus on, to how they ultimately score the game, to which games they review in the first place. A rating of 8 can and will mean different things to different people. Despite the dubious worth of a numerical score, most sites use them. I use them when I write reviews as well. Why? I like numbers.  I don’t think people should pay attention to numbers exclusively but if I want to know, quickly, how much a reviewer enjoyed a game, it’s a good place to start.

An argument could also be made to say that numerical scores are more trouble than they’re worth. Look at any average 7-rated gamed review and the comments will undoubtedly be filled with exclamations such as “7!? You’re obviously a shill, this game is a 6 at most” or “Are you fucking kidding me, 7? Ridiculous, this game is a solid 7.5.” Of course, a stronger argument could be made that we just shouldn’t read the comments on big gaming sites.

I’m obviously not a professional reviewer, but I use numbers as a way to cap off my reviews and give people a quick idea of what I thought of a game. I’ve only written 9 reviews here, but I think I’ve done a good job at using most of the 1-10 scale.

The Swapper – 10/10
Remember Me – 9/10
The Last of Us (Remastered) – 9/10
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – 9/10
Revolution 60 – 8/10
Murdered: Soul Suspect – 7/10
The Walking Dead: Season 2 – 6/10
Contrast – 5/10
Moebius: Empire Rising – 4/10

Looking back, I stand by how I’ve scored games. I enjoyed Contrast (5) more than Moebius (4). I enjoyed The Walking Dead S2 (6) more than Contrast. The place where things get a bit tricky is at the top of the ratings. I gave The Swapper, a short indie puzzler a 10, while I gave The Last of Us a 9. These two games are hard to compare, and I’m not really even making the claim that The Swapper is a better game than The Last of Us, but rather that I enjoyed it more. Though The Last of Us has top-notch writing and quality going for it, I enjoyed the 4 hours I spent with The Swapper more than I enjoyed the 12 hours I spent with The Last of Us.

I’d find it difficult to award a 10 to a AAA title, because there’s just so much going on in them, and so many places to find fault. I’m very critical of bad/unnatural feeling controls, and AAA titles are more likely to have complex control schemes. Their stories can be sprawling, with tons of dialogue and voice acting, which is also a place where fault is often found. They’re more likely to rely on tropes that get overused which makes me think the writing is lazy. Gameplay is varied, from conversation systems, to mini-games, to combat, to crafting, and generally some of those systems work better than others. I’m replaying Mass Effect 3 right now, and though I love it, it would be very easy for me to point out 10 things about it that bug me and could be improved, from holding A to run to having to do multiplayer to optimize galactic readiness. So I couldn’t award it a perfect score. On the other end of the spectrum if you took a game like Limbo, there’s very little to complain about there. The art style is simple, yet effective. Gameplay and controls are not complex, but are very well done. There’s no dialogue, the story is simple and the game gets elevated by  fantastically dark atmosphere. The scope of Limbo is small, but it gave me a great gaming experience and I had nothing to complain about. I could give Limbo a 10.

I think every reviewer looks for different things in games, and puts greater weight on some aspects than others. As I said, I’m very critical of controls. Smooth, seemless controls will make me look very favourably on a game. I also focus a lot on the narrative. I like games that tell a good story and give me characters I can either relate to feel strongly about. Entertainment value is the most important thing though. If a game is a lot of fun, I can overlook a number of issues. Take Saint’s Row 4 for example, there are some annoying technical things, but the game is so damn fun that I don’t care. Likewise, a game can have strong mechanics and look great, but if it doesn’t keep me engaged, that’s worth very little.

There are some things that I don’t care much about at all. Replayability is one. I like games that complete a story, then end. If I replay a game it depends entirely on how much I enjoyed it. I replay games that change based on decisions (like Dragon Age), and I replay games that will be the exactly same the second time around (like Gabriel Knight). Whether the game has multi-player or something tacked on to extend the experience past the main single player game has no impact on how much I enjoy the game. Also, I generally won’t harp on game length or cost except in extreme situations. $10- $20 for a 4 hour indie game seems totally reasonable to me. The only review where I thought a short game length was a major negative was Murdered: Soul Suspect. Full price ($69.99) for an 8 hour game did seem excessive. Otherwise, I won’t complain about a game being short as long as the cost is somewhat in line. I’m actually more likely to complain when a game’s length drags on past its welcome.

Here’s a general rundown of what the 1-10 scale means to me.

  • 10 – This game is special! I got great enjoyment from this game and found very little to criticize.
  • 9 – Excellent, an amazing gaming experience. Probably a couple faults, but nothing major.
  • 8 – Very good. I enjoyed this game but it didn’t blow my mind.
  • 7 – Good. I’m glad I played this game but it did have one or two major (but not game breaking) problems.
  • 6 – Okay. Game had some major problems. The one time I awarded a 6 it was because the first half of the game was very good, and the last half was poor. Probably still worth playing.
  • 5 – Needs improvement. The game had as many negatives as positives going for it. Probably not worth playing unless you really like the genre.
  • 4 – Poor. While not totally without merit, the game gave more frustration or boredom than enjoyment. Not recommended.
  • 1-3 – Honestly, if a game was looking worse than a 4 I would probably stop playing and not write a review. This would likely be due to game-breaking issues, bad gameplay, or hugely offensive content.

What do you think of game reviews and scores? How much weight do you give them when deciding whether to play a game?

Hear Me Roar

The topic of sexism in video games is not a new one, but is one that has been becoming more and more prevalent, at least in the corners of the internet that I frequent. As a female who has been gaming since I developed the manual dexterity to use a keyboard or a controller, the topic is an important one to me.

I will admit that I didn’t always consider being a woman in gaming one worthy of much discussion. Over the past 25 years or so, I’ve had few memorably negative incidents that stemmed from the fact that I was a girl. Sure, there have been some “oh, my god, a girl!” exclamations when I spoke in voice chat in WoW (I actually managed to completely silence a Mumble channel by talking earlier this week). I’ve been asked for pictures, told my voice is “hot”. I’ve also been told I sound like a 12 year old, and putting those two sentiments together is problematic. But in general, I never felt othered for being a female who games.

However, my experiences are not representative of every woman’s. I know I enjoy certain privileges. I know I’ve been lucky. I don’t frequent gaming areas that are known for having a toxic atmosphere or play many games with people I don’t know. I have a very good IRL ignore function that lets things I don’t care to see and hear go by without me having to register them. I also have a thick skin and a big ego. So if anyone were to suggest that I was less of a gamer or my opinions were less important because I have a vagina I could beat them at video games, tell them to fuck off, and then forget they ever existed.

The problem is that even though I haven’t had much overt sexism directed at me personally in games, it’s still there, ingrained into attitudes, opinions, and actions all around. It’s in SCOTUS rulings; it’s in things the mayor of my city says; it’s in game tournaments that exclude women; it’s in women getting minimized, insulted, and threatened for daring to criticize the status quo.

Video games, just like all other media, absolutely influence the way people think and how they relate to other people. When surrounded by countless examples of women as prizes/decoration/helpless/weak/shallow/disposable/sex objects the idea that women are less than can definitely take root (or, in many cases, become more deeply rooted).

Gaming is something that I love. It’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I care enough to speak up and voice my opinions. As Anita Sarkeesian prefaces all of her Tropes vs. Women videos: “Please keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to be critical of some aspects of a piece of media while still finding other parts valuable or enjoyable.” If no one was ever critical, even of the things they like, nothing would ever evolve and get better. Calling out inequalities and bullshit is worthwhile. However, I think that in addition to pointing out the things that need to change, it’s just as important to point out the positives in games. In my experience, criticism is a lot easier to take and more likely to be accepted when it’s balanced with some good. Plus, if I only focused on the negatives, I’d drive myself crazy.

So, I’m going to start what I hope will be a regular feature writing about games that I think are doing things right – being representative, creating nuanced female characters, not falling back on lazy tropes. Few games do this perfectly but they deserve kudos for making an effort and the things they do get right.

This past weekend I was on the Justice Points podcast to talk about the Tomb Raider reboot, so that seems like a good place to start. Later this week I’ll kick things off by talking about Tomb Raider and all the ways I think the developers and writers did right by Lara Croft.