[posted by Gavin Robinson, 9:12 am, 29 March 2008]
This week I have been mostly reading Keith Jenkins and 6 years worth of Scary Go Round. I’m also looking after a coal fire, which means breathing in an unusual amount of hot ash and carbon monoxide. Therefore if I post any really mad ideas in the next few days it’s probably best to ignore them.
The other thing I read was an article by Brian Rejack about Brothers In Arms: Road To Hill 30 (the WW2 computer game that I posted about ages ago). First thought: if only I’d known you could get published in Rethinking History just by writing about how BiA isn’t as realistic as it claims to be. He didn’t even have to cite Derrida (although there is a bit of Barthes). Second thought: if only I’d bothered to look at the extras in BiA. I ignored them on the grounds that I already know quite a lot about WW2 and that I have the research skills to find out even more whenever I want. Do I need to be patronized by pop history factoids? Well, it turns out there’s a lot more to it than that.
One of the central points of the article is that extras can change the way a game (or DVD, where this idea started) is perceived and interpreted. The photos in the BiA extras are a major part of the game’s claims to realism. They include composites of original photos of WW2 mashed up with screenshots taken in-game, with only the change from black and white to colour showing where one begins and the other ends. (I’ve also just noticed that one of the composite shots is on the back of the box, but I don’t think I ever looked at the back of the box. So much for close reading…) With this attention to historical detail, surely Gearbox can say “This is How It Really Was”. But it doesn’t really work. When I wrote about the game I was mostly interested in tactical realism, which I think it ultimately fails at, despite being an improvement over MOHAA and CoD. They might have based the levels on maps and photos of the real Normandy, but does the real Normandy have those strange earth banks in the middle of fields with convenient dips in them that you can shoot over when you’re in the right position? If so who put them there and what are they supposed to be for?
Rejack takes a different approach, pointing out that the characters in the game are not emotionally engaging and don’t react to anything like real people. Even the death of Baker’s best friend in a cut scene isn’t particularly moving. Another weakness is that the game “presents a view of history as a straightforward sequence of events, with no sense of competing interpretations or multiple viewpoints”, although the sequel Earned in Blood does attempt something like that (as I mentioned here).
As a comparison, Rejack offers Facade, which involves more sophisticated interaction with NPCs and much less shooting. I’m not sure how excited I can get about a dinner party simulator, but I’ll report back after I’ve tried it. [Edit: I never did try it.]
Via Grand Text Auto I found an interesting article in Fibreculture about gendered space in computer games and virtual worlds. I definitely agree with the authors that game designers tend to cater for a very narrow range of gameplay styles which conform to a particular masculine stereotype. Anything which encourages more diverse experiences through different gameplay and different concepts of space is very welcome. On the other hand I was a bit disappointed that the article seems to reinforce gender stereotypes more than questioning them. Although the authors claim not to be calling for more “pink” games but to be encouraging an “androgynous mind”, they still seem to be assuming that violence and competition are male concerns which are of no interest to women. For example they refer to FPS as “distinctly masculine”. Defining games as “male” or “female” is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s frustrating that the authors recognise this and try hard to avoid stereotyping women and feminine games (occasionally failing, as when they say that in Second Life “fashion is a prevalent form of player productivity, dominated by female players”), but easily fall into the trap of stereotyping men and masculine games.
Also they seem to have got the links between gender, spatial reasoning, and FPS the wrong way round. The cognitive research they cite to support the argument that FPS favours males isn’t quite as recent as the research I mentioned here which shows that playing FPS increases spatial reasoning skills and that girls don’t benefit from this as much as they could because they’re put off by the idea that FPS is just for boys. This perfectly illustrates the problems caused by stereotyping games as masculine or feminine.
[posted by Gavin Robinson, 3:39 pm, 18 October 2007]
Chris at Mixing Memory has posted about a psychology experiment which suggests that playing First Person Shooters improves spatial reasoning abilities, which also leads to improvements in mathematical skills. This is interesting in itself, but it also relates to his previous post about gender in maths, science and engineering, which looked at evidence for stereotype threat: the expectation that women are weaker in these areas causes them to perform below their potential, and this adds to the myth that women are actually worse, so the stereotype is perpetuated. There is plenty of evidence that on average women do worse at spatial reasoning than men, but the evidence from the experiment Chris cites strongly suggests that this is down to cultural factors rather than innate sex differences. A group of people who didn’t normally play FPS was made to play Medal of Honor, which resulted in a dramatic improvement in spatial reasoning abilities in both men and women. It seems likely that women have failed to benefit from this effect in practice because the perception that FPS games are only for men puts them off.
Another Mixing Memory post on the subject of games mentioned an experiment which found that the amount of blood in Mortal Kombat affects the aggression of the players. I can see right-wing alarmists who hate games deliberately misinterpreting the word “arousal” to portray gamers as sadistic perverts,but it looks like an interesting piece of research. I don’t know if this research has anything to say about gender (I can’t get at the paper itself) but studies of aggression are highly relevant to investigations of the relationship between war and gender, such as Joshua Goldstein’s work (which I really want to finish reading when I’ve got out of the quagmire of English Civil War historiography!).
(I also regret deleting the Gender category. I wasn’t using it for anything that wasn’t also covered by women’s history, but it would be quite useful here.)
Joshua S. Goldstein, War and Gender (CUP: Cambridge, 2003).
I’m trying to get some “proper” English Civil War related work done this week, but at the weekend I did some more First World War stuff. In April I posted about World War I on Flickr, when I uploaded my great-grandfather’s photos from Cottbus PoW camp. Now I’ve added his letters, and another photo which I got from ebay. Although he isn’t on it, it was taken in the theatre at Cottbus and one of the men has the same “Bing Bong Boys” navy outfit:
I’ve now put each letter/postcard in its own set to make the link between the front and back of the same document more explicit. The sets are then arranged into collections. Some people on the Great War Forum were able to help me locate Cottbus Camp No. I, so now most of the photos have been placed on the map.
I also discovered that another Wenham brother might have died in the Great War. I don’t know why I hadn’t ever looked for Wenhams on CWGC before, but I found a Charles Wenham who could well be one of William’s brothers. Some of the evidence is circumstantial and I need to do more digging to be sure, but the epistemic probabilities are quite high. So far it looks like he joined 10th Lincolnshire Regt (Grimsby Chums), served overseas, was wounded and sent back to England but died of his wounds. Unlike the soldiers who died overseas, his body was brought home and buried in Cleethorpes cemetery. Again the Great War Forum has been a great help, and you can see more details on this thread.
And with regard to the other World War, I played some more of Brothers In Arms: Earned In Blood. I was still a bit curious about the post-Hill 30 storyline, but so far it’s been quite boring, and I gave up when I got into a silly tank level that’s suspiciously similar to the silly tank level in Road To Hill 30 that I complained about before. But there are more trees this time…
Gary at Victoria’s Cross linked to yet another piece of lazy journalism about computer games. This is the other side of the coin from why aren’t there any World War I games: Why Are There So Many World War II Games? There are so many things wrong with this article that it should have been easy to knock up a critique of it in a few minutes, but I’ve been too busy with other things so I’ve only just got round to it. Anyone with half a brain might want to skip the rest of this post. Lazy blogging which just points out the obvious errors of lazy journalism in far too much detail is arguably as bad as the lazy journalism itself.