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Touch. Don't Look?

Have you ever had one of those mornings? You wake up, check out a few links to you blog, and end up writing a small essay in response to someone. There's nothing that gets me more prepared to take on the day than writting an essay or eating a good breakfast. Today, I did both.

I responded to a post responding to my BioShock Feminist Essay "Look. Don't Touch." If this continues any further, one could call it a dialog or even a debate. 


While !Finished. Here is the original post.


And here is my response.


June 20, 2009 at 6:57 am

At the time when I wrote the essay, I didn’t have much experience at all with feminist theory or critique. I thought I’d try my hand at it anyway. But even with a “cursory” understanding of feminist theory, I’m sure my functional analysis and specific examples make a solid argument.

I can see that you had a lot of issues with the points I made. After reading your response, I must say that I have issues with the way you think about video games / game critique / BioShock. To quickly sum up the ideas that I’ve spent a lot of time carefully explaining, video game’s most unique feature is their interactivity. Therefore function becomes very important, even privileged over other facets/aspects of a game. This means that graphics, music, and even back ground stories all take a back seat to function/gameplay. Not only is analyzing function more complicated than these other elements, but it can easily communicate ideas in very subtle ways.

So, I started with analyzing how the first person shooter point of view creates an expectation and functional relationship between the player and the game world. To support this idea, I found examples (functional/interactive elements) that encourage or allow the player to control the environement, steal/take what he/she wants, and kill others.

Then I moved on to the commodification of the little sisters. I explained this idea already in my Marxist essay on BioShock. The whole good or bad morality choice design of the game has been widely criticized for a few reasons. One of those reasons is that you get about as many rewards for being all good as all bad in the long run. The player can’t escape playing into this economic idea when getting EVE or other rewards from these little sisters is so functional and overt. There’s nothing to disagree with at this level. You’re looking at things based on the fiction while I’m looking at things from a functional and fictional view.

So from this point, we have to consider where our examples come from and what they mean in context. By looking and function and fiction, I’m aware that some of my statements/arguments may not be so obvious. Though, a bit of ambiguity and contradiction is something that I anticipated: “A Feminist analysis can become more complex when finding examples of actions toward women if a game doesn’t feature any women or the game allows for limited interaction with women. Writing essays about such games often leads to finding evidence by absence. In other words, a Feminist critic’s central piece of evidence may be what can’t be done to women instead of what can.”

I would like more specific examples in your counter arguments. Saying “I think” and referencing the general backstory/fiction of Tenenbaum isn’t specific enough for me: “I don’t think that Tenenbaum morphs into a patriarchal woman. She doesn’t change, we just find out more about her, and as it turns out, she is rather complex (the post doesn’t touch on her background in a German World War II concentration camp).” She may have history in her past, but how she acts right in front of you and how you can interact with her is much more dynamic, real, and potent to her character. Actions speak louder than words.

“Further, the author notes that Fontaine puts down Tenenbaum by calling her a “Mother Goose.” The author seems to forget that Fontaine is the villain of the game, so the player isn’t necessarily supposed to agree with him.”
It’s not that we, the gamers, have to agree with the villain. It’s that the idea is inserted into the work (game), which makes the implications (positive or negative) impossible to ignore. There are so many little things in BioShock, which I talk about throughout the essay, that add up to paint a very specific picture of Rapture. This essay was written to point out many of these little/subtle things.

“But I don’t see what is specifically patriarchal about Tenenbaum’s maternal instincts.”
It’s not so much that her instincts are evidence of her patriarchal role. It’s how the function between the player and Tenenbaum changes in context to the new missions/actions the player must do to progress through the game. To understand this, you have to keep the presented fiction in mind while considering all the subtle and not so subtle ways the action and interactivity of the game communicates ideas.

“Tenenbaum is not an unproblematic character from a feminist perspective, but she is a lot more complex than the author of this post gives her credit for.”
Complex? Sure. Contradictory with the actions/functions of the game? You bet.

“How is the player proactive and decisive? I believe the player is actually reactive and obedient.”
How? How about all the thousands of decisions, actions, and movements the player makes to accomplish the objectives. Every inch moved, bullet shot, and switch flipped is the decisive even proactive part of BioShock the interactive game.

“The fiction supports me on this one: the entire point of the twist with Atlas, the line “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” is that the player has been doing what zie is told the entire time, without any true free will; zie is not a Randian genius but a cog in the machine. This is pretty much the entire point of the game and is, as others have written, a critique on the limitations of video games.”
I’ve found that the critique on BioShock concerning the limitations of video games was blown way out of proportion. A lot of false academics and arty games writers latched on to this idea centered around this plot twist as a sort of last ditch effort to salvage some “true meaning” from BioShock. Perhaps these writers should have looked at the function and the fiction of the game. There’s “true meaning” in all video games outside of their story and plot twists. The player has freedom, choice, and expression through their choices and actions like with all video games. Pointing this out may be clever, but it’s not as neat or interesting as the other aspects of BioShock that I’ve written about already.

“But doesn’t that undermine his thesis that the game isn’t feminist?”
Not exactly. The world of Rapture believes and promotes these ideas. Even if we, the gamers, can look at and understand the time period/historical context, these cartoons and other examples still make Rapture a less than friendly place for women.

In the end, video games are not books. You can’t look at the words/story/fiction and understand what they’re all about. In other words, you have to get your hands on them to get it.
“Touch. Don’t Look?”

I’m glad you took the time to express all of your thoughts and concerns. I’d rather have someone who disagrees with me than to have no one speak up at all.


Be sure to follow the link to the original site. An interesting and very civil discussion is nestled within the comments. By the end of it all, my response alone are over 5k words long! Gotta love debate and discussion.


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Reader Comments (5)

after reading these again, it seems less that what's said is Bioshock is a sexist game but that Bioshock is a game that presents a sexist place and the flaws from patriarchal values.

October 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Johnathan

@Steve Johnathan

I think the language people use to talk about what a game "is" what it "does" or what it "presents/contains" is all getting at the same stuff. These phrases may be largely interchangeable.

November 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

@Richard Terrell

What I'm saying is that there's a difference between Bioshock and Rapture. Rapture has its values (which as we can see, are patriarchal) however, Bioshock presents Rapture as a dystopia and exposes those follies. Satire, pretty much.

November 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Johnathan

@Steve Johnathan

It's not that simple, but that's the general idea. IT's possible to have two viewpoints, one for Rapture and one for BioShock. But if there's not a clear separation, then the mix can be more troubling.

November 4, 2013 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

@Richard Terrell
Sure, because then we're talking about how well it's conveyed that something is even a satire. Given your responses, I presume that you think Bioshock doesn't convey this well outside of presenting Rapture as a dystopia. If I'm not wrong, can you clarify on this point?

November 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Johnathan

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