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Games in Pop Culture


As video games have become more popular and accessible to everyone, they’ve been featured in more tv shows and movies than ever. No longer do people plug away at the Nintendo GameBoy “brick;” now Grandma’s got a Wii in her living room (and has no idea how to use it). Yet the changes in the way games are depicted in popular media have largely been superficial, and often make certain implications about games and the people who play them.

When people play games in movies or on tv, it’s usually a teenaged or young boy with a handheld device that makes the same sounds as old arcade games. Yes, the same stereotype that men are the only ones who game prevails quite often, though sometimes young girls play games too (Gaz from Invader Zim kicks way more gaming ass than her brother). Perhaps the reasoning behind the beeps and pews is because the earliest games for the masses were games like Space Invaders and Mario, and that’s the only exposure many people have had to games. The GameBoy is certainly one of the most recognized symbols for games even after the switch to the PSP and DS, though now it’s more common to see a PSP-like handheld in the media.

Haven’t games moved beyond 8-bit graphics and music? For that matter, most people mute games when playing in public, and to always assign annoying beeps and pews to every game not only assumes games lack finesse in musical qualities, it also assumes that gamers are thoughtless, selfish, and undiscerning. This is not to denigrate Mario, with some of the most often played video game music of all time; this is simply to say that not all games look and sound like Mario. Games now run the gamut from racing and puzzle to FPS and RPG, all with a variety of music, and tv and movies have not changed to reflect this.

Popular media sometimes features people talking about or playing Xbox, or maybe Wii. But the 360 is usually a symbol for the hardcore gamer, or someone who has no life (see Grandma’s Boy). The computer is a more commonly seen console now, although many interface elements are eliminated for the sake of the uninitiated viewer (World of Warcraft is featured in Zombieland and a recent episode in South Park). It’s rare to see people playing racing or shooting games, and when people play DDR in movies they look like “retards trying to hump a doorknob” without regard for actually hitting the buttons (–Dodgeball).

The way people play games on tv is often mindless. It is the same attitude people take when playing Mario Kart; concentrating and competitive. They never seem happy or smile; their eyes are glued to the screen as, emotionless, they go about some noisy task.

Games in commercials are completely different. Players are usually only featured in Wii games, because the focus is on the player and less on the game. Nintendo wants people to see people having fun doing traditional activities in new ways, like cooking or bowling. They have people of all ages, races, and genders enjoying playing trivial games together, or fit women exercising. This is partially because many Wii games are for casual gamers, and it doesn’t really matter to these people if they’re playing Wii Lacrosse or Wii Luge, as long as they perceive that they are “having fun.” Most other game commercials simply feature the game, because they are targeting people who actually know something about games.

Gamefly ran a funny game commercial with people freaking out, screaming, crying, throwing tvs and controllers, and generally carrying on. Their tag was ‘never buy another bad game again.’ This is a pretty accurate depiction of how frustrated gamers can get if they lose their save, die and have to redo everything, or generally are playing a bad game. I think this commercial also reflects how engaged gamers get in the virtual worlds they temporarily inhabit.

Stereotypes are powerful things. The more people are aware of these stereotypes, the more they’ll use them. Sure it’s funny to watch people leaping furiously at a game of DDR, but it may offend the true gamer in its complete inaccuracy. All of these depictions reflect a different kind of genre/gamer. Playing Mario Party with casual gamers can bring the kind of laughter so common in Wii commercials, and playing Bejeweled or Peggle may turn you into a zombie, but I believe it’s more common to see people getting engaged in games for their own sake. Maybe years from now, when the current gamer generation grows up, we will see middle-aged moms on tv  playing Final Fantasy, or old men reminiscing about the Wii’s great retro games. The landscape of gaming is changing, and media has a lot of work to do to catch up.

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Top 5 games to play as a couple


Plus there's always rhythm games like Rock Band.

Play video games for the health of your relationship. It’s a great activity to do together—a fun, relaxing, competitive, addictive, bonding experience. It may be a habit or a hobby, a shared passion, or something you’ve never thought about before. Either way, here are some suggestions for games to play with your significant other.

Left 4 Dead

L4D is a quick and dirty zombie FPS. High customizability is a plus: choose your difficulty, play campaign or versus, play for 30-60 minutes or more, etc. Because it’s co-op, you can practice teamwork, cooperation, and communication. Isn’t every guy’s fantasy to save his girl from a Hunter pounce, the whole knight in shining armor thing?

Dokapon Kingdom

For more on this underlooked party game, click here. A little healthy and fun competition can be a good test of your sense of humor. And you can play two player versus bots. Monopoly plus RPG equals win.

Borderlands

For more experienced players, Borderlands is another good co-op that is a bit deeper for the more narratively-inclined, and is a nice combo between the shooting fun of L4D and the overwhelming details of WoW. Check out a review of Borderlands here.

You can easily make Mario Kart a little more interesting.

Mario Party & Mario Kart

Mario games are classics; most people have played them in some form, and can easily transition into the newer versions. There is also a ton of Wii shovelware games that may serve the same purpose, such as Wii Fit or Wii Sports.

Fatal Frame

It’s like watching a scary movie, only SCARIER. In this single player survival horror, players use a camera to capture the souls of ghosts. With plenty of atmospheric tension and jump moments, you can turn the lights off and snuggle up when you get scared (then laugh when your partner screams like a girl).

Games for Guys


Hope: Because she just might want to hear about your 12th level Paladin.

I keep coming across articles about women in gaming, and a repeated topic is how to introduce women to games. What’s with the supposed hordes of guy gamers who lament their girlfriends’ unwillingness to pick up a controller or keyboard? ‘How to get your girl into gaming’ sounds like a bad romance movie to me. Should women try to get their boyfriends to start scrapbooking and sewing, since those are girl hobbies and gaming is a man hobby? ‘How to get your man to do yoga’ will be my next article. Or maybe ‘How to get your boyfriend to play video games’ would be more appropriate, considering women now outnumber men in online gaming.

Lots of sites have beaten me to gaming for guys, including WikiHow, though it seems to have been written before the joystick was invented. Wiki says: “Find a few games he likes and play the ones he is better at. Mix it up, but always go back to the game he is good at. Racing games are generally easier for you to lose at without showing it.” Purposely lose at a game just because he’s a n00b? Men are our equals, so we shouldn’t go easy or treat them any differently just because they button mash and haven’t learned any combos yet.

WikiHow has more to say: “Consider your girlfriend’s personality when picking out a game. Some girls may prefer the brightly colored, all-ages games like Katamari Damacy, Bust A Move, Lego Star Wars, Sims, or just about any Mario game. But remember that your girlfriend is an individual who could just as well go for Halo, Resident Evil, or Grand Theft Auto.”  This is exactly right. The ‘games for girls’ like Cooking Mama or Barbie Horse Adventures are just recommended based on gender stereotyped hobbies. I like cooking but would much prefer Fallout 3 over Cooking Mama, and I’m sure there are guys who watch football but aren’t Madden fanatics and love Viva Pinata.

So remember, anyone can be a gamer; you don’t need a Y chromosome to hit the Y button. A follow-up on games to play as a couple will be posted next week. Readers, what are your thoughts on introducing men (or women) to gaming?

‘Girl’ is a four letter word


I have sometimes found it a bad idea to reveal my membership of the female sex to online gamers. Sure, it’s a great way to meet gamer guys, but all that attention isn’t necessarily a good thing.

I was playing my Alliance Priest on World of Warcraft, with my boyfriend at the time sitting next to me leveling his Hordie. I was partied with some random people heading over to an instance. Some guy referred to me repeatedly as ‘man’ or ‘he,’ which got my boyfriend a bit upset, so he told me to tell the player that I was not a ‘he.’ I think this can be interpreted by some as being aggressive about one’s gender, which is understandable. Most men would probably be offended if they were called ‘she’ by default.

One player seemed to think that since I was a girl, I would need all the help I could get, so he made it his job to protect me in the raid group. And since I was seemingly offended by ‘he,’ rather than just calling me ‘she,’ I became ‘honey’ or ‘sweetie.’ This didn’t go over too well with me, and it was even worse for my boyfriend.

He felt he had to defend my honor, so he logged onto his high level Horde Tauren Warrior (a most imposing figure) and proceeded to chase us down. Our lower level raiding party was ambushed by a very angry Tauren on a PvP server, though of course the Allies had no idea why.

Some random players came in to the fight, so it developed into a kind of faction war. The Hordies and Allies fought to the death in a prolonged epic battle. I was healing my Tauren “champion” and my allies. Amazingly, in the end we managed to put down the mad cow. I then explained to my party members that the rampaging bull was my boyfriend, and that he was sitting right next to me.

That’s why it’s easier to just let people think I’m a guy when playing online. No stereotypes, no pet names, no being looked down on. Sometimes it’s just easier to let others believe what they want.

But I wonder… is it right? Should I politely correct others if they make the easy mistake of assuming I’m a guy? I’m not ashamed of being a female gamer; in fact I’m quite proud of it, so why should I feel the need to hide my gender?  If more female gamers were open about their gender, maybe male gamers would become more comfortable with encountering us. Perhaps my mistake was in letting the insult stand and in letting my boyfriend defend me. I should have stood up for my gender as equal to his, rather than ignoring his attitude. If someone called me ‘honey’ in such a derogatory manner in real life, I would be offended.

Readers, is it better to ignore sexism or try to correct it?

Busting Down the Glass Ceiling: Female Characters in Video Games


With game companies targeting their growing female audiences more, numerous games have been released in recent years with gender issues in mind. There are many strong female leads to choose from; Metroid’s Samus Aran, Resident Evil’s Jill Valentine, Yuna from Final Fantasy X, Lara Croft, etc. Now it seems the list of weak or stereotypical female characters is limited to the genres of retro, arcade, and fighting.

Part of the reason is that, like the feminist movement, it takes a while for people to change their attitudes towards gender roles. Take Half Life as an example. Half Life 1 starred a male protagonist and male scientists, security guards, and soldiers (much like Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy from Pokemon). Half Life 2 introduced Alyx Vance, the gifted daughter of one of Gordon Freeman’s colleagues, who does get into trouble a few times (as does Gordon), but is just as ass-kicking as our crowbar-wielding hero.

Several story and gameplay issues are involved here. One is the nature of video game characters and how we view them. If a game to you is just something to play to blow off steam or play with friends, then gender doesn’t matter. When you play Mario Party, do you really care if you’re Yoshi or Daisy (though her annoying voice may make this a moot point)?

Help me Mariobi Wan Kenobi!It also matters how game developers view games. Does it matter that Mario must rescue the princess from Donkey Kong, or is it just a player navigating a virtual world by way of a sprite that just happens to look like a plumber? If video game developers do not aspire to tell stories with their games, then their characters, male or female, are simply placeholders and nothing else.

As game designers change the way they approach games, their stories have become more developed and thus have room for real characterization, more than just sticking a bow on Pac-Man’s head and calling it Ms. Pac-Man. Let’s take a look at the Resident Evil series. Female and male characters alike are developed to various lengths, and there is usually a male and female lead in each game. For example, Resident Evil 4 had two returning characters, Leon and Ada, and both are zombie-killing machines. RE characters run the gamut from pathetic Sherry to Wesker the badass, and everything in between. Some are stereotypes (Ashley, the damsel in distress) and others have a bit more depth (Claire the biker chick).

The point is that gender is not a factor here. Jill may be stacked like older video game icon Lara Croft, but she can decapitate a zombie faster than you can say “objectify.” And we have a variety of macho and not so macho guys to choose from for our protagonists (there’s a reason Chris has been in more games than Steve). In this series, it is character, not gender that matters. I take this as a sign that video game stories have seen improvement in the way women are portrayed, and I predict we will see even more development in other aspects of storytelling and social issues as well.