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The strange, sad anxiety of Jason Rohrer's  The Castle Doctrine
The strange, sad anxiety of Jason Rohrer's The Castle Doctrine Exclusive
August 6, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

August 6, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
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    35 comments
More: Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive



The Castle Doctrine, on its surface, is a game about home defense. Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander digs deeper into the game's context in this interview with the designer, Jason Rohrer.

"There's a part of me that's fantasized about being a protector, ever since I was a little kid," Jason Rohrer tells me in a tight, conflicted voice. "But I'm not a well-suited man for that purpose. I'm very thin. I'm weak. I'm gentle, and I'm not aggressive."

To my mind Rohrer's always been a quick speaker, urgent with ideas, endlessly effervescent, continually smiling, possessed of a sagelike quality that piqued Esquire magazine to write a profile on him some five years ago.

The magazine took special note of his unusual family life among tall wildflowers in upstate New York and his $14,500 per year total income, cobbled together from donations, patronage and small consulting fees springing from Passage, an iconic little game he made in 2008. He was one of the first creators of expressive, individual games to make the mainstream media take notice, even if his suggestion that one could cry at a video game was treated as odd at the time.

Despite the "freakishly tall" man's towheaded-boy cheer, though, all of Rohrer's games have been born from incredible anxiety and fear. Passage is a game about the inevitability of death, reportedly made after he watched an elderly neighbor waste away of cancer despite the fact she endured chemotherapy. Game-making has long been the primary outlet for the 35 year-old creator's existential dread and anxiety about death.

"It still hasn't gone away," he says. "As early as I can remember, I'd be lying in my bed -- five years old, awake thinking about myself dying, my mother dying."

He sounds different to me on the phone today, ebullience conceding to something that sounds like tension, or anxiety. He still laughs a lot, but it seems taut, bowstrung.

"When my family was attacked, everyone around me was looking to me to do something," he says. "I feel like this traditional role is thrust on me from time to time, I feel this... pressure."

The attack -- two years ago, his wife Lauren was set upon by a vicious dog -- seems to have brought Rohrer's omnipresent anxiety about death and his sense of powerlessness against some dark, yawning inevitable to the surface. He began to see the wider world around him, the new neighborhood in which his family was living across the country from their former meadowed New York homestead, as potentially dangerous.

As he often does, Rohrer channeled the anxiety-provoking event into a game, The Castle Doctrine, a game about home defense and burglary. It features his distinctive, abstract pixel art style, but an uncharacteristically-muddy palette. It's also the first game the designer has ever made that has blood in it.

***

I've talked to Rohrer about angst before -- I was one of the first people to play his Sleep is Death with him, a collaborative storytelling experiment that hinged on the creator being present as the player experienced what he or she created, reacting to the player's behavior in real time. He'd wanted to kill off all the characters he made for me, but adapted one at the last minute at the insistence of my behavior.

I covered his Inside a Star-Filled Sky after he talked at length to me one GDC about his fascination with infinity. When his game design challenge-winning Chain World, a concept about creating spirituality through legacy, stumbled into controversy after his first player tried to auction it for charity and self-promotion, Rohrer was relaxed, fascinated, even, watching the outcome as he would any emergent behavior.

The Castle Doctrine is Rohrer's darkest work yet. Named after the American legal principle by which a person is considered justified in using deadly force against a perceived threat to their home, it has players purchase and assemble modular defense systems and traps and customize their architecture to defend a safe against other players' intrusions. The player, always an iconic male figure, also has a wife and two children, whose safety is also an objective, especially as the wife always flees the home with half its financial assets.

The paranoid aura, the home-security fetishism, is drawn from Rohrer's own recollection of being a child in the 1980s. He describes his father as a "nervous protector" figure, who very much aimed to fulfill the "man of the house" prescription. In his memories, advertisements about new high-tech alarm systems featuring vague masked men alarmed the already anxious, sleepless boy.

Emergency drills were taught in public schools, and Saturday morning cartoons featured public service announcements about playing the correct role in your family's fire escape plan. In 1990, the film Home Alone -- where one little boy heroically defends his house from a pair of bungling crooks through clever traps -- became an enduring Christmas tradition.

But the game's provoked a lot of controversy and discomfort. An interview with UK-based PC gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun included the notation "[shocked pause, nervous laugh]" on the part of the interviewer (As he loosely identifies as a Libertarian, Rohrer feels the UK-based site felt compelled to sketch him as an "American gun nut.") Academic blogger Cameron Kunzelman attracted social media buzz with a piece where he declared he would not play The Castle Doctrine in protest of its portrayal of family as resources and what he saw as its "apologism" for violence in games.

"A lot of people have said, 'oh, another game where you get to play as Jason Rohrer,' but this is not my family," he says. "It's a game about this relatively-backward tradition, where, as egalitarian as we are, modern men are ... still supposed to turn into some kind of protectors. We like to pretend it doesn't exist, but then something happens that makes it bubble to the surface."

He asks me about who gets the baseball bat if I hear a bump in the night. My boyfriend, I concede.

Rohrer is clearly preoccupied by that perceived social pressure, coupled with his anxiety about whether or not he'd be able to save his family if any threat to them ever appeared again.

"Ever since I was a kid, I had a fantasy of being a warrior, I mean... video games are traditionally these male power fantasies. I've been fed that stuff my whole life," he reflects. "There is a part of me that dreams I would know what to do if we were ever attacked again. In making this game, I was kind of living out that fantasy, a little bit."

"At the same time, I acknowledge it's a fantasy. Even if someone was coming into my house and I was determined to protect my family, I don't think I would be very capable of doing that." Rohrer laughs tautly again. It's a profoundly anxious sound. "I think I'd end up getting us all killed," he adds, still laughing.

***

Rohrer and his wife Lauren have made a concerted effort to raise their three boys in an environment without gender prescriptions. At the birth of his first child, he asked the midwife not to announce the gender, and as an experiment the couple went weeks before answering family members' urgent questions about it.

The insistent "what is it" inquiries, even from his own mother ("it's a child, Mom, not a puppy") only reinforced to the couple how important it was to avoid social prejudice and prescriptions about gender and to allow his children to come to their identity on their own -- free of the very sort of pressures that made Rohrer feel that when his family was in danger, everyone looked expectantly toward him, fully expecting he define himself by violent retaliation, by a noble defense of the homestead.

One of the game's darker inspirations is the first time Rohrer entered a gun shop and wielded a handgun, in consideration of purchasing one. But neither he nor his wife could get comfortable with the idea: "It was too drastic, too scary, too weird. Like, I'm going to carry this on my hip when I'm picking up my children? I didn't want that... the weird feeling of having a life-and-death machine."

Nor did Rohrer feel it was a good idea for someone as preoccupied with death and with the frailty of the human condition as himself to own a gun. "Far more people commit suicide with their guns every year than, than..." he trails off.

"I'm not particularly depressed or suicidal, but I have a morbid curiosity. With all the weird little thoughts that can pop into your mind, it's like, if I had a loaded gun in my hand, could I trust myself?"

***

Rohrer decided to put a wife and children into The Castle Doctrine after a nightmare where his family was being attacked and his first concern was their protection.

Why, then, make a game where the family is represented by performative objects, the wife mechanically just an asset, the children meaningless, with nothing to attach the player to them? That the spouse and children are mechanical elements rather than characters has been one of the widest criticisms of the game thus far.

Despite being known as an expressive designer, Rohrer has always left the generation of sentiment, response, to the player's relationship with the mechanics, with symbols, like the traditionally-nuclear family paperdolls from the security commercials of his memories. His games rarely contain any dialogue whatsoever, nor cinema-influenced framing or music geared at provoking emotion.

In his view, if he'd built in narrative elements, poignantly enhanced the vulnerability to the family, made them real, how sustaining would that relationship be after playing the game across hundreds of the short, mechanically-tense test chamber-like sessions it serves? How could players who just want to win, who don't think about meaning, be enjoined to defend their families?

"My belief is that if you build mechanics that make someone carry out a behavior pattern for long enough -- if you make them pretend to care, they'll end up caring," he says. "As a designer, I'm interested in how we can create feelings of attachment without resorting to monologuing and things like that."

"And I think it's working: If someone's wife is killed, people spend extra game resources to create a shrine to her. I like people leveraging these things in an emergent way, using brutal, ugly pits and windows and little walls to make a shrine."



"In the end, I don't think the way that I did it is all that objectionable, gender-wise. You're a no-good bum who goes around burglarizing people, and your wife is the one bringing home most of the money from the job she has. She doesn't talk, but nobody talks. I don't think I can make a game from a female perspective, and if I tried I think everyone would get angry at me. I think I can only make a game from my perspective."

What does Lauren think? "She hasn't played it," says Rohrer. "She thinks the violence is too disturbing, on top of our recent experiences."

***

When Rohrer's family lived in upstate New York, he had to go to court because he refused to cut the grass around his house to a prescribed height of ten inches. He fought the town ordinance and won. "I like nature," he says. "I wanted to have a wildflower meadow around my home, with native plants, and that wasn't hurting anybody else."

Rohrer also protested painful at-birth tests required before his children could have birth certificates. "The only way out was to say I had a religious objective, and it wasn't 'religious,' and I didn't want to lie, but at the same time, I'm not going to let them cut my baby's heel open."

What happened? "Finally, they gave us a birth certificate," he laughs. "What it really boils down to for most of the political thinking that I do... is that as someone who is very self-directed, and as someone who likes making my own decisions, it really bothers me when I'm forced by someone outside my world to make a decision that I don't want to make."

The issues The Castle Doctrine explores are complex enough that conversations about whether to see the game as either staunchly advocating a political stance or as strictly criticizing one frustrates him.

"I don't think it's black-and-white for anyone who's ever been in a situation where they're faced with protecting small children or a pregnant spouse... I don't even understand, necessarily, what this is about, I just needed to make this," he says. "It's not really logical. It sticks you in this mess, and lets you grapple with it. Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing? Isn't that what meaningful expression does?"

***

It feels somewhat strange to Rohrer to have made people angry, but not entirely unexpected. Up until now, he says, most of the anger his work attracted came from the mainstream industry perspective that his little, often provocative experimental games were "pretentious."

"It made me feel like I wasn't grappling with weighty enough stuff. The other artists I respect are making work that irritates me. My spouse warned me not to go all Super Columbine Massacre or JFK Reloaded, 'because then you'll be known as this guy who did this one controversial thing, and that'll be it.' She was saying, 'Oh, this game will get you cast out or something.' At the same time I wanted to step up to the plate, and tackle an uncomfortable thing."

"It felt right to make a game where I feel weird about someone looking over my shoulder as I play it. It's creepy, which to me means it works on an aesthetic level. And it's about a controversial issue, but it's an important issue. The question of self-defense isn't going to go away anytime soon, and it's a strange one in the world of video games, where we've each killed, like, 10,000 or more virtual people in our day."

It's a little painful for him to feel unwanted, and judged by people who haven't played the game, who don't know him or his family -- especially, he says many of his family's lifestyle choices, like their wild meadow or their long-haired sons, have made it hard for them to feel they fit in to begin with. Rohrer supposes people feel like he's somehow violated the set subject matter about which indies are allowed to make games, by veering too far into certain politics.

"It's like 'we don't want to see any more games from a white male perspective.' So, 'okay, you heard too much from me, I guess I'll go get a job at Best Buy.'"


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Comments


Ian Bogost
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This was a good piece.

Kyle Orland
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Agreed.

scott anderson
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Lots of interesting stuff but the last quote:

"It's like 'we don't want to see any more games from a white male perspective.' So, 'okay, you heard too much from me, I guess I'll go get a job at Best Buy.'"

Seems a little strange and kind of out of context, considering that most games are from white male perspective...

Christian Nutt
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That's his point. He's saying that when that criticism is suddenly levied at him, he takes it at face value and says, 'Okay, then. If that's true, why should I bother anymore?'

Mattie Brice
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I feel like, on all ends, we're still getting used to the presence of personal experience in design. Because really, the politics of the game is disturbing; that you are both the paranoid home owner and the burglar, your family are assets that you are trained to value mostly as objects, a depiction of a frontier world where one can only use violence to interact with the system. Really, shows the contemporary internalization of the post-apocalyptic.

The Castle Doctrine stands as an artifact of a time and mentality, and struggles that are real to certain people. There is value in being able to step inside a mentality to see someone's perspective, even if it's of a person in a privileged place in society.

What's disturbing is a certain lack of self-awareness that seems to come from many of these interviews over the Castle Doctrine. Like, the class and race politics that inform this paranoia but isn't addressed in the game (or interviews). The superficial treatment of gender, where neither the game nor interviews dive into the very real and privileged relationship of men being the designated protector; women are trained from birth to defer physical protection from men, and are used as markers of men's wins or losses. It's okay to have something disturbing, but what I think sparked this controversy is the lack of recognition.

I sit on the opposite end of the final sentiment in this piece; I really want heterosexual white men making games, extremely aware of the politics that comes along with being that identity. What people are tired of is the dominant group generalizing their experience onto everyone else instead of really digging into what kind of fucked up things is going on in our society that forces this group to oppress others.

In that way, I'm appreciative of this game existing. Maybe it's just the interviews, I haven't talked to Jason myself, but the way they frame his personal experience around the themes of the game seems completely devoid of the political context it sits in. So the reaction is definitely trying to critique this game inelegantly and bulldoze it, but I can't really say that it's a big surprise seeing the way the press and Jason talks about it.

Matthew Duhamel
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Part of what I take from the interview is a sense of personal oppression. Jason himself feels oppressed by the roles white men have been bound up in. He doesn't like these systems anymore than anyone else, but simply not liking them doesn't make them go away. When he looks around people still expect him to be the protector.

Part of the problem is that white males can't really stop playing the game, even if we realize how terrible it is, any more than any other group can. This is how I felt when I observed the game. It was as if I was watching an intentional caricature of the roles I am suppose to occupy borne out of a lifetime of anxiously wrestling with them. If only dismantling them in real life was as easy as Camreon's suggestion of shutting it off and pretending the game never existed.

In the Castle Doctrine, the game itself seems to condense these issues into this kind of concentrated disgust. The fact that playing the game makes pretty much everyone uncomfortable seems to be the best critique possible.

Ian Bogost
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Mattie, I'm going to try something that's probably not going to work, but here goes anyway.

Jason's a strange guy. He's a friend of mine, I like him, but he's still a strange guy. I mean, you're already familiar with the story Leigh retells in part in this article.

I'm a strange guy too. All of us are pretty strange. We're writing comments on a video game industry trade website called "Gamasutra."

But to say that Jason's unaware of the politics of his identity, this is unfair. Is he fully, completely, and transparently representative of the external conditions that establish his existence? No, surely not. Are any of us? No, that's what 'ideology' means. That's why need multiple perspectives and voices, to help us see what we miss. (Multiple perspectives and voices also means "not just games," by the way.)

Jason's politics are hardly simple. They're weird and multifarious. I've been hanging around with Jason for eight years now and I still don't really get it. The "experience" that you have the opportunity to try to grasp in this game is no less quirky and unusual than your own, even if I'll readily admit that yours is a much more difficult identity to carry day-to-day. And yes, Jason's also sort of clueless sometimes. Some of those interviews are weirdly awkward to read. But actually, if you stop to think about it, cluelessness is one of the blemishes in geek/tech/games culture that's worth understanding better. We are all, almost without exception, socially clueless freaks who don't fit in. It's no less magical than it is revolting (and it is indeed both). Might it be possible to harness that discomfort if we all recognize that "discomfort" is the thing we share? Maybe not. But maybe so.

I don't think you're really asking for politically-aware games by heterosexual white men. I think you're asking for games in which heterosexual white men fully repudiate white heterosexism once and for all. It's not an unreasonable ask, in some ways, but stop and think about it for a moment. Even if it were possible (spoiler: it's not), it's also a demand, that they (well, we! I'm even more heteronormative and classist than Jason!) abjure completely. To disavow themselves (ourselves) and every stitch of history that's made the world what it is. But we can't. We are us, and us is flawed.

There's a way to read this game, to play it as a performance of that flaw. Jason isn't proud of the identity he depicts in The Castle Doctrine, but the game makes a case for the usefulness of depicting that identity. This is a game that shows its belly. Could it do more so? Sure, of course. But just as you would rightly ask anyone to play your games about your demons for what they are rather than what they are not, so you have the opportunity to do so with a game like this. I'm not going to demand that you do so, nor would I take away your completely valid interpretation of the work. But to suggest that some identities have now run their course and ought not be spoken of further, that's the only thing about this conversation that I find "disturbing."

Mattie Brice
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Are you trolling me lol Because there doesn't seem to be any other way to really respond to this other than you misread what I said and presume a lot of my thoughts and intentions.

Ian Bogost
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There is one way, which is trying to respond. But that's up to you.

Mattie Brice
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Firstly I'd like to say it's kind of crappy to assume I'm not going to understand/care about what you posit. It assumes a stance I have that isn't what I said, and seems to me to show ill intentions without how you're structuring this response.

I would say that, for one, your comment makes this about Jason personally, and I didn't take it that far. As I understand the game, it references feelings around a cultural narrative. There are politics in that narrative that are heavily sexist, racist, and classist, but mention of that is relatively absent from the interviews. As I said, I have no idea what Jason thinks and only have interviews to go off of, and so does everyone else. His personal anecdotes don't really speak to these aspects, and instead give a really unsettling context as to how players are interacting with the game. I should also say that I didn't damn Jason for making this game or having this mentality to explore, only saying why the reaction to his game was the way it was.

You, I, Jason, everyone who talks about games being awkward or not (I don't know why people being awkward nerds is okay, but it's assumed I'm not and I am harsh even though here I am participating in this culture?) doesn't really have much to do with anything? Like, maybe he didn't interview well? It's not fair to patronize him like that. I already stipulated that the interviews probably don't belie his actual, nuanced thoughts.

I also don't want heterosexuality, or whiteness, or being a man to be destroyed, willingly, as an effigy for the better good. You are incorrect in what you think I'm asking for. You can be aware of how your identity matters to the situation you are depicting and design around that. What I am asking is for is more awareness to a person's politics when they talk about and design around these topics, because to not to is ignorant at best, dishonest usually.

I actually enjoy that this game is troubled and communicates that to player through their own body feel as they play the game (having seen what I've seen at showings like GDC). I am glad that it is uncomfortable and people feel uncomfortable playing the game; I don't think I said anything to contradict that.

Basically, people saw the game, noted that they are Jason's interaction with this masculine mythology, and called it racist etc. Should he be forced to talk about the racist aspect of stand your ground and such? No, but it doesn't mean we can't find it notable that he didn't, considering the contemporary landscape of games and American politics. As I said, it's an artifact of the time, and worth talking about. I think it's foul play to release a creative work and then respond with 'Well, you don't really know my whole story' in order to deflect criticism. If anything, this process should be uncomfortable for him as much as it's uncomfortable for the players and those who are now aware of its place in games.

Ian Bogost
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Mattie, I've tried to engage with you generously and seriously here. Yet, your first comment accused me of trolling (if that's trolling, the Internet would be AWESOME), and your second comment presumes ill-will, calling my (seemingly correct) attempt to diffuse the challenging nature of this conversation by acknowledging it "crappy" and representative of "ill intentions." I tried to meet you halfway, and you decided not to meet me at all.

At this point, how shall I respond? Shall I try to assure you that I'm speaking earnestly? That will just reek of condescension. Shall I accept your blame in the interest of moving forward? That will just embitter any subsequent replies. Shall I punt and go meta on the manner of our interactions rather than their substance? Apparently so, because I see no reason not to disengage.

But now I can't even disengage with you, because to do so by not replying would be dismissive, yet to disengage through metadiscourse is doomed to the rightful accusation of pretension. Alas, that's where we're left it seems.

I like and respect you and your work and I hope we can have a more productive conversation about games, politics, or anything else sometime soon.

Mattie Brice
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So do I, because I think we're talking past each other here.

Christian Nutt
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Mattie: "I really want heterosexual white men making games, extremely aware of the politics that comes along with being that identity."

Ian: "I think you're asking for games in which heterosexual white men fully repudiate white heterosexism once and for all."

It seems like you are talking past each other, from my perspective. Call me naive, perhaps, but I don't think that is what Mattie was asking for -- she was just asking for awareness. I don't think she's even necessarily ASKING for people to make different games.

If anything I took her comment more as media criticism, to an extent. Most of the pro arguments on Castle Doctrine have been "But you don't understand Jason's FEELS!"

Of course the con arguments, or at least the one I (attempted to) read, are even worse.

Matthew Duhamel
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It seems like this crux of this disagreement is the definition of awareness. Ian seemed to be taking Mattie's desire for men who are "extremely aware" as am implicit statement that Jason is not demonstrating awareness in The Castle Doctrine.

I am not entirely clear, Mattie, if you're just talking about designers or if you were also referencing the commentary about the game as Christian mentions.

My only thought is that we should be cautious about how we define what is and is not the right approach to deal with such a complex issue. What constitutes "awareness" seems mighty subjective.

Chris McCrimmons
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I think the jist of your comment is spot-on Christian, though I think you equivocate a little too strongly for the lop-sided misunderstandings in this thread. I'm only coming across this "controversy" (non-troversy? is that still used?) on The Castle Doctrine (game) myself and read Mattie's comments mostly as pretty broad media commentary on societal ignorance or willful blindness to systematic racial and gender imbalances in modern media (to sum it up crudely).

Jean-Paul LeBreton
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Jason just posted this on his site:

http://thecastledoctrine.net/seedBlogs.php?action=display_post&po
st_id=jasonrohrer_1375813898_0&show_author=1&show_date=1

Adam Bishop
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I really enjoyed reading this piece, which paints Rohrer in a very different light than Rock, Paper, Shotgun did when they were discussing the game.

Jason Rohrer
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Mattie, thanks for keeping an open mind about this.

Leigh and I talked for a bit about racial issues, but that stuff got left on the cutting room floor.

To summarize, if my light-skinned, security-obsessed 1980s father was afraid of the dark-skinned man, he never expressed that to me. As a child, I always imagined a light-skinned robber in a black knit cap, like the kind of robbers that were eventually depicted in Home Alone. That was also the way criminals were depicted on TV and in security commercials. Perhaps simply because the creators of those commercials didn't want to be called out as racist. But anyway, that was the mental space that in part inspired this game.

Concerning race, some very creepy things would be possible in the construction of The Castle Doctrine... like players being light skinned at home in the homeowner role, but appearing dark skinned when they are robbing the home of another player. But for me, this wasn't a game about race, and it would be REALLY hard to defend that kind of construction, since the vast majority of people would misread it (see how they are already misreading so much about the game). Also, it formed a discord with my own personal memories and experience, because my own personal burglar fears weren't connected to race.

This game does tackle the social factors that fuel paranoia through its emergent dynamics. Some players become rich, and they naturally play more conservatively and go into a paranoid defensive role after that happens. They no longer go out robbing, because that becomes too risky for them. Still, no security is impenetrable, and even the rich players are vulnerable (with vulnerability being the core aesthetic of the game). Security, in the end, is kind of an illusion.

Mattie Brice
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I hope it doesn't come of that I think you are especially racist/classist/a bad person. Not what I meant to communicate.

What I, and possibly others, are noting is the reference material of that man in the ad and the current politics of standing your ground springs from a very racialized and class-based fear. In reality, it's not affluent white people scared of other affluent white people breaking into their homes.

I don't think you have to make the stretch for if there is or should be something in your design that is specifically about race and class. It's an honest and disturbing game, and that's fine, just that part of what is disturbing about it is the troubling identity politics behind these home/personal security ideologies.

Sjors Jansen
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"In reality, it's not affluent white people scared of other affluent white people breaking into their homes."
Is too broad a statement. Maybe that goes for certain areas in america?

I fear a burglar looking for bread a lot less than a burglar looking for a distraction.

It seems like many critics are stapling their own contexts onto the game and that in turn offends them. Which is kind of ok right?

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Philip Minchin
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@ Tomasz Kaye: Let's make an analogy about freckled people (to choose a similarly random physically-visible biological variant) and playing piano (in a society where being perceived to be a pianist is a bad thing because, I dunno, pianos are dangerous).

First, "disproportionate" doesn't mean "majority". It might be true that a disproportionate number of people with freckles are pianists, i.e. if you have freckles you are also more likely to be a pianist. That's not the same as saying that any given pianist is more likely to have freckles than not. If 10% of the population has freckles but 20% of pianists do, that's still a 4 in 5 chance that any given pianist won't have freckles, even though freckled people are twice as likely to be pianists as non-freckled people.

Further, if pianists are only 0.5% of the overall population (i.e. 1 in 200 people play piano), 20% of 0.5% is 0.1% of the population is a freckled pianist and 0.4% of the population are non-freckled pianists. 0.1% (freckled pianists) out of 10% (total freckled population) is 1% of all freckled people playing piano. 0.4% (non-freckled pianists) out of 90% (total non-freckled population) is 0.444...% of all non-freckled people playing piano. In other words, while it's true that any given freckled person is a little over twice as likely to suddenly play the piano, that doesn't mean that it's especially reasonable to assume that the freckled person walking around your suburb is going to suddenly break out the Moonlight Sonata.

Second, even if it were the case that there was a disproportionate number of freckled pianists, a disproportionate reporting of freckled people being pianists this still be a problem. In other words, if 20% of pianists are freckled but 80% of media reports about piano attacks focus on freckled people as the perpetrators, that's still an injustice in and of itself, and lays the foundation for serious human rights abuses of the freckled.

(This is definitely the case in media coverage of violent crime and lower-class/non-white people, by the way. Rich white folks have lawyers and can sue you for defamation if you report their momentary lapses.)

Third, if there's a centuries-long cultural legacy of myths about freckles *causing* you to play the piano, or freckled people being innately predisposed to play the piano without good reason (to say nothing of unspoken assumptions about freckled people being less entitled/less likely to have good reason to play the piano because historically the systems of power depended on them not doing so), repetition of the meme of "freckled pianist" can reinforce what is obviously a lie.

Fourth, if conscious or unconscious discrimination based on the "freckled pianist" stereotype is one of the causative factors that denies freckled people other opportunities, that may well be contributing to freckled people deciding to play the piano in the first place.

Fifth, if the myth of the freckled pianist makes it more likely that freckled people will get caught, prosecuted and sentenced for their piano-playing ways, and especially if they don't have expensive lawyers and a greater social presumption of innocence, freckled pianists may be over-represented in the music statistics because non-freckled pianists are more likely to get away with it by dint of their considerable social advantages. This is a more debatable point, but it's entirely logical and consistent with how we know the world works, and for what my anecdotal evidence is worth, even the most serious crimes get more under-reported the higher up the social hierarchy you go. (Again, makes sense: the powerful have more avenues to cover up or escape the consequences of their actions.)

Lastly, to drop the analogy: the degree of disproportion that you're talking about when you talk about race or class being correlated to burglary offenses is trivial compared to the correlation of being male with committing rape. The highest estimate I've ever seen for non-male rape perpetrators was 10% of rapists, and that was in the context of an article that was intentionally stretching. In other words, rapists are overwhelmingly male in a way that burglars are NOT as overwhelmingly non-white, or lower-class, or male.

(That's not to say that non-male rapists are any less reprehensible than male ones, or we should ever assume that rape by someone other than a man couldn't happen. Who committed the crime is irrelevant to its seriousness to the people affected.)

What's more, there was that study recently done which asked people about their sexual behaviours and found that approximately 6% of men - that's one in 16, not 1 in 100 - will admit to committing rape if you don't use the R-word and just describe the situation. That's 1 in 16 ADMITTING it, meaning the actual prevalence is higher. Given we know that many rapists are serial offenders, those numbers certainly fit the widely-accepted estimate that 1 in 3 women and (I think, the consensus is still emerging) 1 in 10 men will be raped in their lives. It certainly makes it much more reasonable to assume that a man wandering around might be a potential rapist than a poor, non-white person wandering around might be a burglar.

Look, I'm not saying that it's wrong to ever consider known correlates of a given danger. But the human brain is intrinsically predisposed to misunderstand population-level generalisations, and as gamers we know the incredible power of (often self-fulfilling) expectations in shaping people's behaviour.

So if you want to avoid being irrational, you have to proceed with extreme caution, and to resist having it influence your behaviour unless the level of correlation is extremely high - as is true of the rapists-are-usually-men generalisation, but not so much of the housebreakers-are-usually-poor-non-white-people, as Sjors's comment indicates. (Though he seems to forget that what's under discussion here is not "what's most likely" but "what most people fear", which is not the same as "what Sjors fears". But good on him for seeing past the stereotypes to the real risks in his specific circumstances - many don't!)

Chris McCrimmons
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Glad to see that you are taking everything in stride Jason and continuing to push out fantastic games that produce actual conversation in the industry! I thought the game was interesting purely on a mechanical standpoint based on analysis I've seen you post elsewhere, yet the socio-political implications of it are also interesting and have sparked crazy discussion it seems. Kudos to Mattie for bringing up some real social commentary in the context of the reaction to (some) of the reaction to the game and your interviews and kudos to you for recognizing the context of the commentary and how your highly personal game fits into the discussion/dominant media narratives rather than knee-jerk defensiveness.

Sjors Jansen
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I thought what was under discussion was wether or not critics have a point when criticizing that race was a non issue in this game.
I simply think that's not what the game is about, though yes, it might have been an interesting extension. I think one needs to take a hard look at the context of the critic when outside elements are forced onto a game.

And then at least establish and illustrate the critical perspective and context with some research & numbers.
What I know in this regard is that the NYC police was harassing colored people with their stop & frisk policy for nothing most of the time, which indicates a clear bias and might be fear. http://www.nyclu.org/issues/racial-justice/stop-and-frisk-practic
es

But I don't live in america. Perhaps there is a huge dread in the mind of the average white male relating to the average colored male. Dunno, I spent a couple of days wandering and sleeping on the streets of Manhattan, that wasn't nice and maybe I just got lucky, but I only got a single stare and some words from one colored person. And in Los Angeles everything was peachy.
In western europe, teenagers tended to re-enact what was presented as gangsta culture, not because they were actually poor, but because that was presented as cool. But those sorts of things and their consequences happened regardless of race. And burglary is also treated very differently, you are not allowed to harm someone just because they came into your house unwanted.

So I honestly don't know what the situation is in america, race may factor in to being poor. But if you take out wealth, I doubt race factors in to burglary. And don't colored people fear burglars too? And then you still have to consider the rest of the world as well. Or not, depending on what critical perspective you're taking. Personally I'd like to read a critical piece on the game by an average joe or jane in asia :)

I fear definitions of most people.
And most people.

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Philip Minchin
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@ Tomasz Kaye: Thanks for taking it in the spirit it was meant - i.e. not as a gigantic slab of text all dedicated to bludgeoning you as Wrong and Bad, but just as an exploration of the issues in response to your question about "irrational fear" - and for your own thoughtful response.

My overall point was that double the odds of being a pianist sometimes just means a few percent, or few fractions of a percent, greater chance. I.e. it's a negligibly greater chance, and usually a negligible absolute chance too. In that context, singling anyone out for piano-fear (which is offensive and hurtful to the vast majority of non-pianists) is not only irrational but usually counterproductive :)

Similarly saying that "freckled people are twice as likely to play piano, therefore we will collaborate in constructing an archetype of pianists as freckled" is actively misleading (and again, slanderous, therefore injurious to freckled folks, and irrational) if the numbers still show that 4 out of 5 pianists are freckle-free. Especially where the "official" numbers are skewed by known selection bias on the part of authorities - who gets arrested, prosecuted, etc. That can come from a feedback loop - more X currently do Y, therefore we look for X when investigating Y, therefore we continue to find more X even when the absolute number of X doing Y is actually dropping.

And again, the power of expectation in influencing both behaviour and performance/success in various tasks can't be ignored. Maybe that disproportionate likelihood is partly there because of the existing social myths. If so, combating representations that perpetuate the myth is worthwhile because it may cause the myths to no longer be true (and incidentally reduce the overall likelihood of the threat). This means there is some value in the tendency you allude to of resisting the repetition of stereotypes whatever the numbers say, or limiting the contexts in which you do so - value that is never present in repeating those same stereotypes.

I guess my overall point is that the threshold for it being rationally worthwhile to associate particular threats (or characteristics in general) with particular groups is very very high. I would argue that the parallel you draw between worrying about men as potential rapists and poor non-whites as potential burglars fails because the former crosses that threshold (and also is true across many contexts) while the latter doesn't (and is true in far fewer contexts). Which is why I think that the point you seem to be implicitly making (and apologies if I'm wrong there) is incorrect and worth responding to :)


@ Sjors Jansen: Yes, of course overall you're correct about what's under discussion, sorry :)

We've established that Mr Rohrer created the game to explore his own personal issues around this topic. I.e. it's based in his personal experiences and context, which includes living in America.

At this point I have to apologise for misreading what you wrote - I thought that the US context was a given, so I wrongly assumed you were talking about a context elsewhere in the US, not an international one. Given that, hopefully you can see why I referred to your response as I did :)

I think any game about defending your home *in America* in the foreseeable future is going to raise issues of race - especially now! The fact that the name of the game echoes the "justifications" for the Trayvon Martin killing makes it not only responsible for critics to bring the question up, but I would argue irresponsible for them not to.

That's not to say any such game HAS to explicitly address race, but its creator has to be prepared to talk about (and potentially be criticised for) that decision. Wanting to try and make the game relevant to people outside that context - like yourself - is a reasonable response in my book :)

But it is also reasonable to question whether there's false generalisation going on. E.g. a game about maintaining civic order in the US that ignored race would be pretty ahistorical, and the levels and kinds of anxieties it might communicate might be inappropriate to export to other contexts where race is not a factor in the same way - might put a spin on the experience of players in that context that nudges them to misunderstand what civic disorder might mean in their own context. Of course, civic order is inherently much more a social than a personal experience, but hopefully you take my point.

So yes, the game's not about that, but I still find the question of whether or not it could/should have been and how it might have been different to raise some very interesting discussion. Case in point :P

Sjors Jansen
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Oh, no apologies neccesary.

There's false generalization everywhere, your point I take.

But I do disagree.
Imho people observe through their own lenses. And that colors their view of the world and how they respond to it. I do this myself of course, it seems inescapable.
But I think some could do with a bit more level headed-ness or maybe be more aware of this. The Trayvon Martin case illustrates this as well I would say: The light brown guy likely thought the brown guy was one of the burglars he ran into a couple of weeks before, who were also brown.
So, race and feminism are examples of two things that are dragged into online conversations too quickly in my opinion. Because those are things that people pay attention to, listen to. It's sensationalist in a lot of cases if you ask me. They are also easy to spot, fitting for a lens.
In the Trayvon Martin case the mob mentality lead to "the people's justice" being inflicted upon an innocent family. That could have been much worse and then we would have a reverse kkk. Great solution, fighting fire with fire.

So I don't think a game developer (like probably most of us here) is obligated to appease arguments stemming from something like that.

Doesn't mean there can't be interesting discussions of course, but in this case I feel the racial context is part of a lens and is a cheap tool for critics anyway.

* Interesting point I noted while reading up on the Trayvon Martin case (didn't know what it was) is that the hispanic guy was wearing a gun alledgedly because of the free roaming pitbulls, pepperspray was deemed insufficient. As parallel to Jason's story.

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Paul Alexander
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I've said all I need to say about the critical reaction to this game here...

http://imaginaryplaymates.net/ideas/2013/7/25/the-castle-doctrine
-and-its-critics.html

...but I just want to thank Leigh for such a great piece of writing.

James Margaris
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The level of justification being offered here (both by Leigh and Ian) is extremely charitable compared to what "racist", "misogynistic" etc games normally get.

Trying to understand context and the intent of the creator is a good thing, but it strikes me as strange that in this case people are bending over backwards to excuse and humanize the creator (often with weird irrelevant trivia) while for similar games, especially similar games created in Japan, no such consideration is typically given.

In the Feminist Frequency videos that Gamasutra features games are brought up and dismissed as sexist via a 5-second clip taken from a Let's Play. Any of those games could be approached with the same level of detail and care displayed here.

In short Rohrer is getting the benefit of the doubt rarely given in these scenarios. That's not wrong it itself but it stands in fairly stark contrast to the norm.

Paul Alexander
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I think it's worth noting this game as not been released, and that none of its critics (Kunzelman et al) have played it. A fair degree of skepticism with regards to claims about its problematic content (or lack thereof) seems apt.

Michael Joseph
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The discussion may end up being better than the game. If this is by design that would be really cool.

The psychological origins of the game from it's creator sound more interesting to me than the game itself.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_doctrine


Jed Hubic
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The game is now on my radar. I hope he's undeterred by any criticism by those that live to criticize. It takes a driven person to act on something that bothers them, such as making this game, and it takes an extremely lazy person to complain about things endlessly, such as about this game. Like he said about his meadow, it's not really hurting anyone else.

This looks like a really drilled down and focused experience, and I'm glad he's made it from his perspective. Anyone complaining should make a game from their perspective if they don't think it's being represented. That's what Rohrer did, and you can't fault him for that (well I'm sure you can somehow, it will just take a 1000 line comment that I'll skim through and pretend I read, then rebuttal with something that's only slightly on point, but really I'm hoping I got lucky and what I thought I read from skimming was actually correct. Then I'll feel bad if I get told that I missed the point and I'll make a mental effort to read the new comment but I'll still skim it, then I'll get distracted and forget about this).

Nicholas Heathfield
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Perhaps someone will make a very similar game which stars a Russian Jewish Muslim black transsexual lesbian gypsy as the character, with an American Christian white straight middle-class male as the helpless subject of protection?

I expect it will be much, much more popular among the morally-superior patrons of various game industry websites.

Ferruccio Cinquemani
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What I find infuriating in these discussions is that a political meaning is forced on a piece of art with complete disregard to the work. The "race issue" or the "class issue" are not part of the meaning of this game, as far as I can tell. Forcing such a perspective means destroying the meaning of the game itself. If this game is based on a personal experience and it's using mechanics to express a moral ambiguity, forcing a political perspective means destroying that ambiguity and undermining those personal experiences.

It's like saying "you're a white male, so it doesn't matter what you're trying to say, let's rather talk about why *people like you* say these things". And writing the word "privilege" every paragraph doesn't magically add meaning to these criticisms. We're all privileged, in a way or the other. The experience of a person who is privileged is not less valuable than the experience of another one. It can be harder to relate to the experience of people who are radically different from each of us (that's why Sofia Coppola's movies bore me to death, for example) but it doesn't make those expressions less meaningful or legitimate.

The new feminist/political critique in indie games reminds me of the worst feminist/marxist literary critics of the 70s. Dogmatic, boring and completely incapable of seeing past their political pet peeves. In other words: incapable of understanding art.


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