While there has been some notable improvement lately, video games have not historically done a fantastic job of representing queer identities (or really anything other than “straight white dude”). The days of overt homophobia and extreme stereotypes are mostly behind us, but to put it bluntly, LGBTQ+ gamers usually take what we can get in the representation realm. Sometimes, that means playing as a gay character with very little actual identity beyond a statistic on a character sheet. In many cases, it means there is a female character who can be romanced by any gender of player character but basically is just gay or straight depending on your play-through, rather than a realistic portrayal of a bisexual woman. In an increasing number of cases, an NPC (usually one you can’t romance) is presented as canonically gay, but this either comes off as tokenization or even as baiting. It acknowledges that queer people exist within the world of the game, but doesn’t really allow queer gamers to roleplay authentically, unless you count “one dimensional flirting with that person I have no chance of hooking up with” as an authentic roleplaying experience.
As the trend towards inclusiveness increases, we often see developers either avoid defining a character’s sexuality if it doesn’t directly come up in gameplay or taking a “let’s just make everyone pansexual so players can make their own canon” approach (like many Bethesda and Bioware games). While there is actually something to be said for that second approach, particularly in an open RPG where making your own story is the point of the game, there is also something to be said for explicitly defining those identities and making players deal with the reality of not everyone on earth being bi/pan.
Note that the female version of the char is featured in the promo art. (image via Wikipedia)
The debate over the portrayal of sexuality in games has been going on for quite a while (anyone remember the controversy surrounding Juhani from KOTOR 1?), but gender is only just starting to get addressed along these lines, and finding solid representation of BTQ characters is often much harder than finding LG representation. Recently, Dragon Age 3 took a bold stance and allowed players to define not only their sexuality but their gender identity. The success of that game and the fact that the inclusiveness certainly didn’t hurt sales has opened some doors, and developers are starting to cautiously move towards them.
The recently released Torment: Tides of Numenera falls squarely into that category, exploring these concepts in a way that’s actually inclusive but not quite taking it to the level of DA3 in terms of how that is done. Like much about Torment, it’s a solid step in the right direction if not quite a running start.
While I consider myself an anime fan, I only count a surprisingly few anime titles among my all time favorites. One that definitely makes the cut is FLCL. It is almost impossible to explain what exactly FLCL actually is (though our own BrothaDom made a truly valiant effort); the show is legendarily rumored to be a byproduct of writer’s block, spawning from a handful of unfinished ideas that some anime all-stars had been batting around. While that may be at least somewhat apocryphal, it certainly explains much of the show’s signature production style. One interpretation for it all that I cannot help wanting to explore, however, is that the entire story is a parable about adolescent sexual and romantic coming of age.
Quiet moments like this have more raw emotion than the apocalyptic action scenes.
Much of the plot is directly and explicitly just that: a coming-of-age story. It can be argued, though, that the more grandiose and surreal main story arc is all one giant metaphor for this as well. In addition to the protagonist Naota, almost every other key character (primarily the three women in Naota’s life: Haruko, Mamimi, and Eri) also deals with these themes and the extraordinary events that happen to them are all viewable as metaphorical (and/or metaphysical) extensions of those emotional struggles.
As the YA sci-fi and fantasy genres become more and more of a driving force in pop culture, FLCL is worth revisiting (again) for what it says about some of those same themes. It tells a complex and deeply layered yet easily relatable story about the nature of romantic and sexual self-discovery in a way that validates the emotions that young people (and everyone else) look to explore in this type of fiction; not only that, but it does so in a way that treats them with a sincerity that mainstream YA fiction sometimes tends to handle with melodrama and/or trivialization.
Trigger warning for underage sexual relationships below.
Geek culture has evolved. Over the last few decades, a push for greater inclusiveness and better representation has gained major ground as our generation’s penchant for nostalgia simultaneously breathes new life into dusty classics. One of the more excellent byproducts of all this dusty life-breathing has been the tendency to reexamine some of our favorite classic female characters and expose them to modern feminist criticism. In the midst of it all, however, I feel like one of the most unique ladies in comics has remained largely confined to “cult status”: Tank Girl.
This foul-mouthed, sexually liberated, substance-abusing, interspecies dating, ultra-violent, post-apocalyptic badass has been around since the late punk days and has given us some of the most incredible and incredibly fucked up stories I’ve ever read. She has been able to retain such a consistent emotional energy throughout decades of artists interpreting her that she nearly seems to have some level of real-world agency; at times she almost feels real. I, and many of her fans, see her as a sort of pop culture meta-demigod-thing: “Tank Girl, goddess of anarchofeminism and blowing shit up.”
You really don’t want to make her mad.
Tank Girl is, in many ways, the comic book equivalent of the punk and riot grrrl musical movements. Born a decade after the Sex Pistols but a few years before Bikini Kill, Tank Girl’s pagesradiate a sense of anarchistic artistic resistance to the inequality born of extreme commercialism and the emotional damage caused by rigid and oppressive social norms. Tank Girl is regularly portrayed literally destroying systems of oppression, often going to ludicrous extremes to avenge minor injustices (such as the mafia buying up all the good beer to sell everyone crap at inflated prices) and occasionally committing major injustices in the process, highlighting and mocking the fragile nature of these systems along the way.
I admit it, I’m bad about checking out browser-based games. Brilliant titles like Depression Questoften slip past me for months even when I’ve read numerous articles about them and made a point to play them. That was what happened with A Normal Lost Phone. I read about it, thought “that sounds amazing, I need to check it out” and then… just didn’t, even when it started coming up in my alerts for “games like Gone Home”. So when I saw it available on the App Store, I had to download it immediately, and I’m glad I did.
Heads up: you will forget it’s an app at some point.
The premise of A Normal Lost Phone is both simple and incredibly innovative. You have just found a phone and you are looking through it. That’s all. The entire interface of the game is a simulated phone with a handful of apps, and the puzzles are essentially just figuring out various passwords and finding where to type them. But as you do that, two things start to happen: you begin to get drawn into the story of the person whose phone it was, and you become increasingly aware of the fact that you are role-playing an invasion of privacy, effectively hacking a particularly vulnerable person to find out more details about their life.
Warning: spoilers for basically the entire game after the break.
When I first watched Star Trek: The Next Generation as a kid, I was struck by how strongly I connected to the characters. For many of us, I think, it was one of the first shows to really inspire. Not only as a bold continuation of Roddenberry’s vision for the future, but as role models for how to live our lives. Picard, Data, Dr. Crusher, even Wesley all served as early examples of what we aspire to be and how to start living up to that aspiration. But as I grew older, I realized that one character in particular was causing me to think about gender roles and romance in ways I wouldn’t fully understand for years: Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge.
“Oh crap, Picard’s got that ‘I need you to violate the laws of physics’ look on his face again.”
In rewatching those episodes, I have come to understand the character of Geordi LaForge as, among other things, a parable about how easy it is to fall prey to toxic masculinity and how genuine confidence and respect rather than bravado and entitlement are the keys to avoiding it. This was something that takes years for many people to understand, and fortunately, we have years worth of TNG to see Geordi’s masculinity evolve as he begins to understand these things as well.
With Wonder Woman’s tenure as the United Nations Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls coming to a somewhat unceremonious end, I can’t help wanting to do a postmortem on her appointment and the controversy surrounding it. In addition to finding the whole affair oddly fascinating, I found it revealing—not only about global attitudes towards feminism but on how the most recognizable symbols of pop culture feminism are often inherently polarizing.
While I do not question that all parties involved genuinely had nothing but good intentions, there were some serious objections raised almost immediately (after the collective online shout of “cool!” dissipated, anyways) and they bear further examination, especially in light of the apparent success of said objections.
The three things that were most controversial about this “appointment” are all significant. The primary objections were that Wonder Woman is overtly sexualized, that a fictional rather than a real woman was unacceptable for such a role, and that giving “Wonder Woman” that voice for women was effectively just handing it to the DC Comics marketing department. While there were a few objections related to her history of violence and some that simply being a comic book character delegitimized her, the former was not really unique to this case in any particularly interesting way and the latter is something I won’t dignify with a response.
No matter your thoughts on the politics of the campaign, this is an ad you’d probably want to stop and look at.
Before I jump into the fallout over all this, it’s probably a good idea to recap what exactly happened. While this was a big deal in geek and/or feminist circles, it was quick and a lot of us may have missed most of it. In October of 2016, the UN announced that Wonder Woman would be named an honorary ambassador. The press release mentioned that as part of a campaign with DC and Warner Bros, Wonder Woman would be connected to everything from fighting abuse to promoting examples of women making a difference. What would WW actually do though? Primarily, be featured in various social media campaigns to promote gender equality as part of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
Without getting into depressing (and obvious) specifics, I’ve been thinking about fascism lately—specifically the concept of “utopian fascism”. As is often the case when grappling with such issues, I turned to science fiction for a guide. Fortunately, there is a fictional government perfectly suited to explore the question “can democracy and universal prosperity ever be successfully combined with fascism?”: Star Trek’s Federation.
The Federation’s exact political structure is sometimes difficult to pin down, but it seems to be a combination of a democratic interplanetary parliament, a massive military alliance, and a totalitarian bureaucracy.
This isn’t what it looks like.
Now don’t panic! This isn’t going to be super depressing nor is it going to be about space Nazis (unless you count the above-pictured episode TOS episode “Patterns of Force”). When I talk about fascism, I’m talking about the philosophical concept as it dates back to Rome, not the actual horrific reality of modern-day fascism. I am not about to ruin all of our moods by writing some anti-Starfleet propaganda… at least, not too much of it. What I will do is take a look at how the Federation is utopian, how it’s fascist, how (and if) the two can be combined, and what that all says about our vision of a perfect government.