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Ouya invests in 'feminist puzzle platformer' from new studio MK Ultra
Ouya invests in 'feminist puzzle platformer' from new studio MK Ultra
November 12, 2013 | By Kris Graft

November 12, 2013 | By Kris Graft
Comments
    58 comments
More: Indie, Design, Business/Marketing



For video game designer and journalist Mathew Kumar, satirizing the "damsel in distress" trope is about more than having fun with game mechanics. It's also about de-stigmatizing the word "feminist."

Knight and Damsel for Ouya is the first game from his new Toronto-based studio, MK Ultra, a venture founded by Kumar, Andrew Carvalho and Colin Mancer, all of whom contributed to Queasy Games' Sound Shapes in various capacities, from design to tech to art.

Inspired by Anita Sarkeesian's video series, "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games," Kumar and Carvalho created a prototype for the game at Toronto's TOJam game jam earlier this year to take on the challenge of expressing feminist values in a video game. Kumar openly describes it as a "competitive two-player feminist puzzle platformer," so the studio is undoubtedly committed to pursuing that feminist vision.

"Now I'm aware we're a team of three guys right now, and it seems sad to have to state this, but men can be feminists," he tells me in an email. "I really just wanted to explore if we could make something that satirized the 'damsel in distress's' damaging nature mechanically. I really want to explore if mechanics can be the message."

Here's how Knight and Damsel works: The game is specifically designed for two people to play – one as a knight and one as a damsel, at all times. True to his chivalrous nature, the knight feels he must save the damsel, but the damsel, an equally-capable character, doesn't want or need any of his help. The two are essentially attacking each other in attempts to further each one's own cause, and those attacks are a reflection of the damaging nature of such common tropes.

"It's purely a satire of the 'damsel in distress' trope," says Kumar. "It's not trying to fix gender relations once and for all. Is that weird to point out?"

In a space (i.e. video games) where the varying degrees of harassment for even mentioning "feminism" reflect fear and misunderstanding of what feminism is, it's not so much "weird" as it is a precautionary measure. Kumar explains that the game's message about tropes is meant to be subtle, but also to communicate a point.

"The thing is that I refuse to not describe ourselves as feminist," he acknowledges. "I know we'll be attacked from both sides on this--heck, Joss Whedon hates the word [laughs]--but I want the word to not be such an albatross. I want people to just be the word, accept we are too, and not think 'oh they're doing this for controversy.'"

Pitching a game, and working on Ouya

Knight and Damsel is under development at MK Ultra as a timed exclusive for the Ouya microconsole. Instead of turning to crowdfunding, either on their own or through Ouya's Free the Games Fund, the developers instead went directly to Ouya with a pitch during E3 this summer, and came out with some funding.

"I think one of the big things that helped us in the pitch process was having the prototype from the jam," says Kumar. "I mean, you see it from things like Double Fine's Amnesia Fortnight that jams are are good way to prove a concept, as well try and bash out a whole game in a weekend (which is obviously great), even if you don't get polish in."

Kumar says the version he pitched around was "really buggy," but the point is that there was something to show – a working concept.

Ouya liked what it saw, and invested in the game. "One of the funny things was that while all the 'Free the Games Fund' controversy was ongoing, and people were asking 'why [isn't Ouya] just investing [in games] directly?' I was sitting on the fact that they were in fact doing that."

Kumar admits that some indies may chalk up Ouya's investment to the fact that his name and team are attached to known games, and he has a reasonably more visible profile thanks to his prior career as a games journalist.

But he says, "I think if you were looking for smaller amounts than the Free the Games Fund was supposed to cover, as we were, Ouya was very open to people who had projects they could show, and who were excited about the platform."


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Comments


Jasmine Kent
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"True to his chivalrous nature, the knight feels he must save the damsel, but the damsel, an equally-capable character, doesn't want or need any of his help."

But the damsel is not equally capable: she cannot save the knight. This game has predefined and distinct roles for the male and female characters.

Kenneth Blaney
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"It's purely a satire of the 'damsel in distress' trope," says Kumar. "It's not trying to fix gender relations once and for all."

Jasmine Kent
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Satire or not, it's still wrong to say that the damsel is an "equally capable" character in this game.

Mathew Kumar
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Yes, as Kenneth says above, but I'd like to say we haven't claimed that the Damsel will specifically not be able to save the Knight...

Jasmine Kent
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Is this quote from [1] not accurate then, or are you planning to make changes?

"When the players are close enough, the game enters a single screen mode where the knight is tasked with grabbing the princess while the princess continues to run to the start of the level."

[1] http://andrewcarvalho.com/portfolio/knight-damsel/

Mathew Kumar
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No, it is not. You might notice that's from the prototype and on our website we've noted that the current version is different.

Vinicius Couto
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I'm not sure that "the damsel can't save the knight" is really an inequality. The knight can't actually save the princess, since she doesn't even need to be saved.
Also, both characters may have a predefined roles and objectives, but they play the same, which is in itself a critique on damsel trope (people having different predefined roles in society, even though they have the same capabilities).

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"But the damsel is not equally capable: she cannot save the knight. This game has predefined and distinct roles for the male and female characters."

Lets assume that there are two Navy SEALs and one of them gets captured. Both are equally capable soldiers, but one needs saving. This doesn't mean that either of them is less capable. External circumstances are not always equal while capabilities or competence might be equal.

Are you sure that you aren't reading "incapable" into this because she is a damsel? Which by the way would be ironic since you are trying to reject a trope but reinforce it by assuming the damsel is incapable by virtue of being female, not by virtue of circumstance. Thats pretty sexist if I ever seen it.

Vicki Smith
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She's equally capable of saving herself, which is the important thing, I think. Let's not slap down people who are trying to make things better for not going far enough.

Kyle Redd
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@Vicki

I don't know. I mean, would it really be going too far for the designers to at least have an option to reverse the two roles in-game? I can't think of a reason why they shouldn't, anyway. I don't imagine it would be a massive programming challenge.

Kenneth Blaney
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@Kyle As in female knight (technically a "Dame" I think?) rescuing a male damsel? I would imagine this would be a pretty simply sprite swap.

Luke Meeken
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While the damsel can save the damsel, and the knight can save the damsel, meaning that functionally, they are equally capable (theoretically), it does seem to be a problem that, in this description at least, the idea that the KNIGHT might need saving is never even brought up.

However, it seems like this mechanical disparity could be framed in a progressive way. Like, the knight never needs saving. Okay. Perhaps the damsel also never needs saving, and the fact that the knight has a mechanic to 'save' the damsel is framed as a consequence not of some objective sex-based role, but of the subjective gendered role the knight mistakenly assumes for himself. The knight consequently tries to save a princess who does not need saving, because he assumes its his duty, and that produces the tension described above.

It sounds like, though, based on Kumar's comments, the knight will indeed need some saving, which could complicate things in more interesting - and more progressive - ways.

Kenneth Blaney
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I came in with the question of "How can a platformer be feminist?" and that question was answered really well. Although I must say I was really worried when the TvWiG was discussed because the game idea presented there is really just a retrod of the "Action Girl" and would be subject to all manner of normal feminist criticisms. I look forward to having something interesting to play on Ouya.

Mike Rentas
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"I want people to just be the word, accept we are too, and not think 'oh they're doing this for controversy.'"

But they are using it just for controversy/attention. It's great if they want to parody overused game tropes, but they're using it as a marketing angle in this interview.

Not to mention that their idea seems to be basically a riff on the last level of Braid.

Tiff Chow
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I see opportunity where you see controversy. How many games can you name that approach design with a feminist perspective? Some, but not many, so the more the merrier! I think the more open the conversation is about their approach and what a feminist vision means in games, the more we'll all learn!

Morgan Ramsay
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There's nothing inherently wrong with engendering controversy. Controversy is discussion. Isn't that the aim of a communication medium? That commercial interests are sometimes served by controversy is synergy, not conspiracy.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Controversy is discussion."

Actually discussion is discussion.

Controversy is attention.

This can under specific circumstances lead to discussion, but does not necessarily. Correlation doesn't equal causation.

Being controversial is hardly a substitute for actual discourse but it can be a good way to draw attention to a subject. Unfortunately this game only does Step 1 without ever trying to engage in Step 2.

If the game's goal was to engage its audience in discussion, it would implement that in some way, after all games are interactive and thats what makes them unique to other media. Where film, literature or music can only transmit a message a game can let a player interact with it, potentially even with other players.

Morgan Ramsay
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Attention is relative and doesn't exist in a vacuum. If there's attention, then there's "attention to" something. Controversy means that there are people talking about something which has captured their attention; therefore, controversy is, at least, indicative of discussion.

Amir Barak
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"prolonged public disagreement or heated discussion"

Not a bad thing in and off itself. Of course anything that is in public space will generate some form of controversy given that some people will always disagree with the creator's creation (whether the creator's intention of its creation is what the observer observes is completely irrelevant). And these days where our public space (Internet) is so huge the controversy generated for any product is usually much larger...

Also, any public display of a product or team is publicity which means attention seeking, that is not in and of itself a bad thing either since visibility is the only way to generate sales.

What makes you think their game is done for controversy's sake (again, not a bad thing in and of itself)?

And finally, inspired by the last level of Braid is not the same thing is ripping off the last level of Braid.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Controversy means that there are people talking about something which has captured their attention; therefore, controversy is, at least, indicative of discussion."

talking about something =/= discussion

It might be a conversation, however a discussion would imply a desire to reach a consensus, a structured argument.
Controversy rarely leads to discussion, it often leads only to ambient noise of people conversing about the subject. Given that there is always someone to disagree with something, controversy is everywhere.

My point still stands that controversy alone is not sufficient and that there is no indication of the game (product) actually seeking anything beyond attention as it has no other elements to engender discussion or debate on the subject in of itself.

Luke Meeken
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Conversely, I think they are explicitly adopting the term to show how *uncontroversial* feminism is.

'Feminism' shouldn't be any more 'controversial' a position than, say, 'anti-racism' yet folks who profess feminism on the internet - especially in gaming communities - get raked over the coals by people familiar only with a caricature of radical feminism as their referent (and who, ironically, are usually actually feminists themselves, unless they genuinely believe that men and women don't deserve equal treatment, rights, and dignity in the face of the law and society - they just apparently never learned what that word means).

The fact that their employment of the term is at all 'controversial' isn't a black mark on them, it's a black mark on the gaming community and press at large.

Ian Fisch
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I really like the idea that the game is making its point MECHANICALLY rather than using non-interactive story segments.

This is my idea of games as art, conveying a theme in a way that other mediums cannot.

Jed Hubic
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I can't wait to play this and not be able to have a valid opinion on it.

Jokes jokes.

Peter Eisenmann
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It's funny that the damsel is still in distress, even if it is the distress of being "rescued" against her will. Really, not that much has changed.

Ian Fisch
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What an asinine comment.

So is Super Mario a "man in distress" because goombas are trying to kill him? What about Master Chief or any other male videogame character for that matter?

Peter Eisenmann
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Great comparison!

So let's see...

One character is female
The other male and presumably stronger/at least better equipped
The male (presumably) tries to grab the female against her will and take her somewhere where she does not want to be ("security")
The female tries to flee/avoid the male

Totally comparable to Mario stomping on goombas.

Kenneth Blaney
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Mechanically they are rather dissimilar. That is, in the classic damsel in distress one of the defining characteristics is that the damsel cannot save herself. There is no game mechanic in any core SMB game (other than 2) by which the princess saves herself by herself. However Mario can defeat the goombas and the Damsel in this can save herself from the knight. Thus, while still technically being in distress in a direct definition (in which case every character in every video game ever has been in distress), this damsel is not "in distress" as most damsels are.

James Coote
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This "damsel in distress" problem is actually fairly easy to solve once you break it down:

Firstly, you want to have strong, empowered women. That means you have a female heroine. Secondly, you have this premise, where someone gets kidnapped and it's up to someone else to rescue them. Obviously, the heroine does the rescuing, but the key thing is who the kidnappee is.

They have to be important enough to the heroine to be motivated to rescue them. Who is important in your own life that you'd suffer and face great danger to help? Family, friends, lovers, or at a stretch, someone so well regarded that society would be much worse without them. Maybe a stranger who saved your life at the last minute by taking a bullet for you or something, and with whom you feel a moral obligation to at least find out who they were and try to repay the favour?

But actually, let's take friends, and go set the whole thing back in pseudo-Medieval Europe:

Kidnappers burst into the private chambers of the princess in the castle, and mistake one of her handmaidens for the real princess. Steal the handmaiden away. The King refuses to send a rescue party, hoping to take advantage of the mistaken identity for some political ends. Princess gets frustrated and sneaks out the castle with her remaining handmaidens to go on an epic quest to rescue their friend.

None of this cheesy, artificial role "reversal". There are established roles, and you put interesting characters into them. Q.E.D

Kujel s
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This is a really good idea and deosn't fall into the "feminist" trap either.

I just have to ask you James what does Q.E.D. mean, I've heard it from brits a few times over the years and I'm curious.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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quod erat demonstrandum - "which had to be demonstrated" also often used as an expression to say "as i just demonstrated/explained"

Kujel s
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Thanks, I've wondered about that saying for quite a long time.

Kenneth Blaney
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As a math joke (QED ends math proofs very often) it also stands for Quod Ego Dico which translates [poorly] to "because I said so".

I image this story idea would fit very well into a JRPG framework.

Amir Barak
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Sounds like a cool idea; you're still using the "Damsel in Distress" trope though :D
Not that there's anything wrong with that...

Carl Rutter
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Does that just mean the handmaiden is the damsel?

James Coote
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Yes, but not because she was a woman, but rather because of mistaken identity. You could probably contrive some sort of gender-neutral scenario for mistaken identity if princesses isn't your thing

In fact, you could really have anyone get kidnapped and anyone else rescue them, so long as you have the right premise for them not getting rescued the normal way.

Maybe the prince gets kidnapped, and the King declares that the prince was never his legitimate son anyway. The princess determines that her father, the King, is a bastard, willing to abandon his children for any slight political advantage. Sets off to rescue the prince as a way to strengthen her own position in the royal court

Or going back to the original handmaiden example, the King as a character believes women, and especially handmaidens, are airheads, spending all day putting on dresses and makeup, and to be used as political pawns at best. Hence not worth rescuing. It's being (sadly) realistic about sexist attitudes some people hold, without the whole game and/or its premise being inherently sexist.

You also get the interesting sub-plot of what happens when the kidnappers discover their mistake. Is the handmaiden killed, does she realise the danger and escape, does she get Stockholm syndrome? Maybe the gender of the handmaiden makes a difference to how she or her captors react. Or maybe it doesn't, but that's up to the writers and/or players to explore

Simone Tanzi
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Well... when I read about a feminist platform inspired by Anita Sarkeesian's videos I cringed...

I used to consider myself a feminist man too... before I had the chance to see feminists and the problems they want to expose.
Now I'd rather define myself a promoter of gender equality and mutual respect.

then I really looked into what the game was all about and ... I find it brilliant.
We have the damsel in distress trope completely adverted by a damsel that actively saves herself, and we have a knight that further punctuates the fact by trying to save her anyway....
But when she's already free and she's unwilling to be taken by her so called savior the knight becomes nothing more than another kidnapper.

It also puts IMHO the whole damsel in distress trope in the right perspective.
the damsel in distress is ultimately not about stronger sex against weaker sex.
is about the absolute unilateralism of having a knight savior that is capable and active and a damsel in distress that is either incapable to free herself, unwilling or both.

the damsel in distress trope is not wrong by itself. what is wrong is assuming that the damsel is the female role in the natural world while the male gets to be the knight savior (and should never become a damsel in distress lest be considered less of a man).
the way towards gender equality is not destroying the damsel in distress trope, is accepting that knights saviors and damsels are not gender roles. Just a matter of helplessness and agency.

Kenneth Blaney
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Do not be put off of feminism based on "Feminist Frequency". A lot of her videos seem to speak for all of feminism (based on the language she uses), but they really don't... not even just academic feminism. For instance, her videos drastically undercut major issues of third wave feminism such as women of color, transgendered people, slut shaming, and how patriarchy impacts intergender relations (beyond keeping women down). Now, I say "her videos" specifically, because I'm sure (or I sincerely hope) she knows something about those topics but it just generally isn't her area of interest.

Simone Tanzi
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Well, I'm not put off by a particular "front woman" of feminism but rather by the many "nameless" examples of feminist that turned from battles towards gender equality to outright antagonism against general male population.
Ultimately I think they probably are right since as a term feminism is just the female version of Masculism, so you can kinda expect that after the early absolutely righteous battles (right to vote, right to not be considered a husband property etc.) many feminist lost their way and radicalized either by turning into a amazon like society advocating female superiority over men and general misandry, or by turning against each other in a battle to oppress every woman that, in their view, disqualify the figure of women. which is something unclear, every woman has her own idea of what disqualifies women and escalates in something very extreme very quickly.
I do believe in people, not gender.
And as a man I get pretty offended whenever I read "Men are responsible for....".
I'm not.
I never been.
And a lot of other guys have been nothing but supportive of female rights. (and on that note supportive of the right of many categories they don't belong. Race equality despite being white, gay rights despite being straight, you name it)
Of course not all feminists are like that. But nonetheless those are the two images that comes immediately to mind.
Relentless Misandrist furies hell bent on taking revenge on the whole male population.
Or perfectionists that promotes an unrealistic portrayal of women and bash on every depiction that is not an absolutely perfect and godlike woman image.
In many gamasutra topics about gender equality I see a lot of the second types and sometimes some slight hints at the first.
That's one of the reasons I don't call myself a feminist anymore, because I rarely met someone that defined herself as a feminist and was into equality rather than getting even for thousand of years of male oppression an that sure shaped my expectations toward the issue.
The most positive kind of feminists I met usually address themselves as "Hi, I'm X and I believe in Y" rather than "Hi, I'm a Feminist".

Kenneth Blaney
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I do agree with you. There has been a backlash against the casual misogyny on the internet in recent times which has led to a rise in more authoritarian feminism (in comparison to the more libertarian feminism of third wave). It is somewhat ironic then that the internet feminists here are guilty of the same sin that is pulling apart modern conservatives: insistence on ideological purity.

I have certain opinions about academia in gender studies and I have no doubt that they are probably formed significantly by my opinions about the humanities in general. (For context, I'm a research mathematician.) Specifically, I think it would be incredibly helpful to feminism if feminists would make more reference to what kind of feminism they mean when they say they are feminist so as to express the idea that they are aware that their thoughts on feminism are not universal truths. (Economists do this a little by saying things like "Austrian-school" or "Keynesian" but they need to do it more to bring it into public perception.)

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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The push I'm seeing currently is that everyone is leaving the feminism label in droves, moving on to humanism, and whatever is left in the "feminism" label is then the core hardened extremist elite.

This works for me.

Theres a few people left that still try to "fix" feminism from the inside by adopting things like egalitarian feminism or equity feminism, trying to marginalize the extremists by distinguishing them into gynocentrist, patriarchal or gender feminists, however its largely a battle with windmills at this point.

Not to mention that even equity/egalitarian feminists, in their toned down third wave form, still get things equally wrong just without the offensive and crass "die cis scum" hashtag.

Feminism is just completely done at this point.

Nick Harris
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Would the Knight be so brave without his armour?

Kenneth Blaney
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The one from Ghosts N' Goblins is. Haha!

Simone Tanzi
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That was something that came into my mind while reading this.
The game is clearly comical but the main true realistic difference between the knight and the damsel is equipment.
the knight is geared for battle, the damsel is not (well, actually I assume not)
Give armor and a sword to the damsel and put the knight in a frilly prince charming dress and blonde curls and I'd say no one would expect the knight to do anything but wait for the armored Valkyrie to save the day.

Leonardo Ferreira
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He honestly wants us to believe he is making a game with "feminism" in the description in an honest, wholesome, way, and not just using it to gain attention?

Also, and slightly off topic, I wonder why we care so much about Sarkeesian has to say about games, as she is not an specialist in them or anything, but in feminist studies; she is just like Roger Ebert was in this regard, an outsider with uninformed, biased opinions. I much prefer what someone like Leigh Alexander or Brenda Romero (née Brathwaite) has to say about women representation and role in the games industry than her.

Also also, what is it about the topic gender relations that makes everyone's blood boil so much?

Kujel s
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Also also, what is it about the topic gender relations that makes everyone's blood boil so much?

Probabbly cause our gender (men) has in the past treated women very badly for quite a long time.

Leonardo Ferreira
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Oh I see; my initial guess would be that is because gender issues affect men and women in different, irreconcilable ways, so its quite hard to everyone to agree with everyone, because we're always dealing with the other.

But your answer is far better: nowadays, is basically about masturbatory self-righteousness and being the right guy (or gal) in the room.

Kujel s
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I suspect that is also a factor in the matter as well.

David Richardson
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A few popular atheist vloggers made a fuss about feminism a few years ago after an incident at a conference. (Google "elevator gate" for the boring details). I presume in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. (You can only harp on about the same issue so long before even your most devoted fans get tired of hearing the same rhetoric over and over.)

With nothing else to drone on about, one of them latched on to Anita's now-famous series on video games. Ironically, it further divided the atheist community and only served to boost Anita's visibility.

Anyhow, that deep divide is why tempers run so hot. It's ridiculous, sure, but we're not dealing with rational people here. We're dealing with people who feel that they need to be part of a persecuted minority to feel like they're part of a group.

It's unlikely we'd even be talking about these issues right now if it weren't for those ill-fated attempts to discredit her work.

Bob Johnson
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Back in the day graphics weren't good enough to have this problem. Yet it was mostly guys that played games.

Ian Fisch
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What?

Amir Barak
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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Custer's_Revenge

Not saying you're wrong, just that you're not right...

Kenneth Blaney
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The assumption that "mostly guys" played games back in the day isn't really supported by evidence. Lots of video games, especially puzzle/point and click/text adventure games, at the outset were also popular with women and girls. The AAA industry moved away from them, but vestiges like BigFish still exist that are very popular with women.

Lex Allen
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It would be lovely if people actually played the game in its completed format from beginning to end without prejudging it.

Amir Barak
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You're obviously new to the Internet.

Andy Lundell
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I don't think it's unfair to make a judgement (good or bad) based on their marketing message.

That's what they WANT us to do. That is the POINT of marketing.

Katy Smith
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Maybe it's just the way the article is written, but I find it a little weird that on one hand, the game is being advertised as a "feminist puzzle platformer" and on the other the developers say "it's just satire" and isn't trying to fix anything. I feel like you don't get to play both of those cards at the same time. Like, if you are going to drop the "f-bomb", go for it all the way. Make a statement! If you don't want to make that statement, don't advertise the game with loaded words.

That being said, I'm actually very interested in seeing how a game can express values / concepts through gameplay.

Also:
"Now I'm aware we're a team of three guys right now, and it seems sad to have to state this, but men can be feminists"

this made me happy :)

Kenneth Blaney
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I think the idea he's trying to get to with this is that the game is not the be all and end all of gender relationships in games. That is, it would not be proper to say something like "This OUYA game is here. Gender relations are fixed now, so stop complaining about it," in the same way as people without irony suggested that, "The president is black so there is no racism anymore."

At least, that's how I read it.

Luke Meeken
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I think it's refreshing for them to put forth that feminism is a completely reasonable worldview that can influence your life and your work without you coming across as the kind of agenda-pushing straw(wo)man game people often tend to caricature feminists as.

It's like "Of freaking course we believe women and men should be afforded equal rights and dignity, and of freaking course we believe conventional historical gender roles have hampered the rights and dignity of women, and of freaking course those beliefs are going to be reflected in whatever work we produce."

While I think the assertive, critical culture-warrior approach of critics like Sarkeesian is also much-needed and important, I think it's equally important that there are creators out there trying to show how making a feminist game should be about as 'controversial' as making a game that opts not to include golliwog caricatures of black people, or that opts not to advocate child abuse.


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