Lara Croft, for Gamers and Non-Gamers Alike! (aka My Birthday Homework)

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For my birthday this year, my wonderful partner/roommate/soulmate gave me the new Lara Croft: Tomb Raider video game. The day it came out. (He also gave me a homework assignment – he wants me to explain, in writing, how I feel about his game after finishing it. Fair!)

Some context: while I love to self-identify as a ‘gamer’, I kind of suck at XBox 360 games. I don’t have a lot of experience with them, first-person-shooters don’t tend to attract me, story-wise, and my dual-analog skills are dismal. That being said, I was incredibly attracted to Tomb Raider when I saw the first few trailers and making-of videos. There are a lot of feminist type issues (I have stayed away from the internet between the release day and the posting of this blog to preserve my own opinion!), which I will get to, but as a whole, at the beginning, I felt like I finally came across an XBox 360 single-player action game that I actually wanted to play.

Pre-release, I heard that Lara is a bit ‘victim-y’. Some people took issue with the apparent fact that her character is sort of framed to bring out the player’s protective instincts. This, to me, is a side effect of creating through the male gaze; Lara is further away from a sex symbol than she has ever been before, and therefore, for the male gamer (the assumed target audience, although I’m not sure if it is true), there needed to be some other way to connect with a playable female protagonist.

I see that. In this game, Lara isn’t really an ass-kicker (at the beginning). When she falls down, she has a variety of  ‘oops I fell down, that hurt’ noises. She often looks like she is only barely competent at what she is doing. Her deaths are really victim-y (there I go, using a non-word again). To me, though, this was awesome. Why? Because that is what would happen if it were actually me!

It may not be a good thing that victim-Lara was so relatable for me, but she was (is). If I were suddenly stranded on ‘lawsuit island’ (nice, Conan), where there are seemingly dozens of tribes of feral men trying to kill me, supernatural storms, wolves, and deadly landscapes, I would totally fall down all the time. I would be crying out when I’m about to lose my grip while rock-climbing. I would be covered in scrapes, cuts, bruises, and mud. My hair would be a nightmare. I would totally look terrified when some caveman is trying to drag me to my death by the ankle. To me, she manages to be afraid, and not be trained in combat, and not be a total tank in the muscle department, and still stay alive and do what needs to be done.

That is SO. AWESOME.

(Later edit: I’m not comfortable with this being awesome. After playing the game, this felt like a relationship between me and Lara, and in that respect I loved it. But when I take a step back, and think about this game in a wider cultural context – and with hundreds of thousands of players – I am so not okay with how helpless she often is.)

So, my overall impression of this game is that it was incredible. It was exciting, it drew me in a way that Gears of War and Call of Duty don’t (although apparently I should be comparing it to Uncharted, which I know little about). It made me feel like a total badass, by the end. It gave me a great opportunity to finally get the hang of XBox 360 controls, which might make it easier to try out new games in the future.

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Cell photo of my TV while I played – the scenery is incredible.

There are some issues, though, and not with the game play (from a gamer’s perspective). Since I can’t seem to turn off my criminology-influenced mind anymore, I do have a few more things to say. As time goes on, it gets harder and harder to live in the world without critiquing it, seeing evidence of criminological theory, and it is kind of a painful way to live. I like to think that I am evolving into a criminologist. A pterodactyl would be cool too, though.

So, here we go. In chronological order as they came to me while playing the game: Trigger Warnings and Sex Assault Through the Male Gaze, and Killing Lara A Zillion Different Ways That Take Away Her Agency.

Trigger Warnings and Sex Assault Through the Male Gaze

*Trigger Warning – I’m going to describe the scene in order to explain myself, so if you don’t want to read this, skip to the next bolded heading*

One of the issues I had been aware of prior to playing this game was the fact that Lara experiences some sort of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault near the beginning of the game. The first article I read on it essentially asked ‘Why does a female character mean she has to be a rape survivor?’ After reading that article, I had some beef. I think because, statistically speaking, it’s pretty likely that a given woman of Lara’s age has experienced some form of sexual assault. I also thought it might be showing the various ways something can be scary or threatening – you don’t need a big gun to be a villain, and maybe this is an example of this in a video game.

So, as the game began, every time a scary feral caveman jumped up and grabbed my ankle to drag me to my death, I thought “IS THAT MY RAPIST?” Every time a male character (and let’s face it, almost everyone was male) was introduced, I thought “You?!” It had me a bit on edge, but I was okay with it. When it finally came, I was not.

I am going to do my best to explain why I do not think this was incredibly wrong, I just think this could have been done in a better way.

Lara’s “rapist”, as I had been calling him in my head, is part of a gang of men who fight Lara through a section near the beginning. There is a lot of shooting and sneaking around until you get nabbed by The Guy. The only ‘sexual assault’ that happens is subtle. You can tell from his aggressive and violent innuendo (I wish I had quotes) and a couple of head glances that he sees her as a sexual woman, but in a predatory, deadly way. He grabs her during an animated cut-scene, slides his dirty, bloody, sweaty hand down her arm from shoulder to wrist, and may even touch her stomach slightly. Everything about his slow, possessive, anticipatory arm-graze screams “I am going to have my way with you”, but, even knowing what I am about to explain, I think that was okay. It is really realistic, actually. Having Lara go through an entire game and fight a few hundred men without a single reference to her sexuality would be flat-out ignorant, in my mind, and nothing referencing her body at all ever happens again.

So, Lara reacts. I’m not sure if she was trying to pull away or push him off, but it happens quickly. While it remains cinematic-looking, the control vibrates like crazy and the screen tells you to press a specific button repeatedly to fend him off. Now, this is what would happen if you were a good gamer, or at least somewhat familiar with XBox 360 controls.

He touches her creepily, she tries to fight him off. Press Y (or X, or whatever) repeatedly, cinematic shows them grappling/pushing back and forth a bit. They tumble to the ground. A gun falls from the assailant to the ground.

He scrambles on top of her prone body, they lie face to face grappling and grunting while she stretches out her hand for the pistol. Press X or Y or whatever. Good for you.

Lara grabs the pistol. Aims it at his head. Click RT and aim to fire. Boom, you killed him.

Think to yourself, Really, that was it? That wasn’t so bad. I don’t know what everyone was complaining about.

Now… let’s rewind that playing it like I play. Like a total XBox 360 n00b who doesnt know A from X from Y from B.

Step one? He strangles Lara to death. Wraps his dirty, bloody, sweaty hand around her throat, lifts her off the ground. Her face tilts to the sky and her hands struggle futilely to pull his hand off of her throat. She fails. Goes limp. He throws her body to the ground.

I had to watch that ten times.

Okay, you finally figured out where X (or Y, or whatever) is, good for you. You’re on the ground. Assailant stretched out on top of Lara, both reaching for the gun. You may even get the gun, but, wait, you aren’t good at aiming with the dual analog controls? Oh, that sucks. You get to see a cinematic of your assailant pressing the barrel of a pistol to the underside of Lara’s chin while stretched across her body. He pulls the trigger. Boom goes her head, and you can see her face the whole time.

As it may not be difficult to figure out if you read my last post on trigger warnings, I am a bit… touchy where these things are concerned. Where there is some representation of a woman that is utterly helpless at the hands of a man, and great harm befalls her (or even could befall her), I don’t really like that. Sometimes, if it is overly graphic and touches a couple specific triggers that I have, I have a serious visceral reaction.

While playing this part, each time I watched her die, utterly powerless, at the hands of a man who integrated aggressive sexuality with the attack, I got colder. I got very still. My face went from engaged and excited to alarmed/concerned/sympathetic to a cold stillness that comes over me when it, for whatever reason, stops being about empathy and starts being about me. This happens very rarely. I felt sick. I kept at it because I wanted to win, but when I finally won, his death was practically an afterthought. I felt like I was going to throw up. Or cry, or both.

Unfortunately, I usually can’t verbalize when that happens. Zach, I’m sorry you thought you did something wrong when I left the room abruptly with that look on my face. I took something close to an hour alone in the darkness of our bedroom to pull myself together.

I was really angry afterward. After some experiences during that day that already had trigger warning on my mind (although in a more academic context), I ended up writing that semi-rant. I’m not angry anymore. I don’t think that this, in general, shouldn’t have happened. However, this really proved the whole ‘male gaze’ (or ‘female gaze that can’t relate to sexual assault or male intimidation’) thing. Because this whole part, including the deaths, wouldn’t have been a big deal to someone who A) hasn’t experienced something similar, or B) doesn’t have a sensitivity to this type of thing. It is obvious, to me, that it is essentially considered just another combat animation. This shows such a fundamental lack of understanding and sensitivity that, while I’m not surprised, per se, I am really not impressed.

I think this could have easily been solved by incorporating some way to skip the death cut-scenes, kill him from afar a different way (and therefore remove the sexuality from it), or even just animating the deaths less. We don’t need to see her struggle for breath and slowly strangle. We don’t need to see her face as a bullet passes through her head.

Hence, to me, the male gaze. While other parts could have triggered other things (mostly if, for example, someone has PTSD), I think those were fairly warned in the trailers. If the trailer had included Lara slumping as a man holds her off the ground by the throat, I would not have played this game. I imagine a future where video game companies, like criminologists (see last post!), realize and respect the diversity of their audience. A future where we can trust entertainment media to give us a heads up to leave the room if we can’t handle something that is well-documented as a trigger.

I don’t judge them too harshly, because I know how personal my understanding of this is. I know that a very sympathetic person reading this post may still not feel what I felt when playing it. I can see how that effect could be overlooked by a team of developers creating through the male gaze. (Although assuming this was actually overlooked is a bit generous on my part.)

Okay, enough of that!

Complaint #2: Killing Lara A Zillion Different Ways That Take Away Her Agency

This is more criminology/media studies thinking. The death scenes for Lara are animated in serious detail. It’s pretty awesome that, while sometimes she does just fall off a cliff and become a speck, a lot of the deaths are well-rounded and more complex than her just falling over (although this is what happens when she gets shot from afar). However, I would love to do a content analysis of each way she dies, and find another video game with a male protagonist (maybe Uncharted 3?) and compare how the death happens.

With the exception of drowning, so many of these death animations, to me, reduced her back to the ultra-feminine-incompetent victim in the moments leading up to her death. When fighting hand-to-hand with someone with a blade, if your health gets low enough to die, do they show the blade sinking into Lara’s skull? Lopping off her head? Stabbing her through the heart? No way – the male assailant grabs her by the shoulder/throat area and bends her over backwards before sliding the blade into her. Domination and submission, yikes. Why can’t she die the way she lived?!

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Like this.

Sliding through a stream full of debris, she gets impaled on a rod – and, similar to the strangling scene described earlier, the rod spears her from under her chin through her skull, and her hands flail uselessly at the rod until she goes limp.

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Sorry, Lara

Etcetera, etcetera. Basically, I felt like a badass – except when I died, and I know from watching my boyfriend play video games that there are plenty of ways to die like a boss. Why didn’t they animate how she dies if she’s in an explosion? And please note, I did not watch this looking for ways to criticize the representation of Lara – I just realized how I felt every time they took my blood-covered, grenade-launching, rock-climbing alter ego and made her powerless in death. This may sound like an oxymoron to you, but to me it’s not!

Anyways, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m fascinated with this stuff, and I would love to talk it over with anyone interested in this type of thing as well. Thank you to Zach for getting me this game – I am going to beat you to the ‘No Stone Left Unturned’ achievement!

Thank you for reading. 🙂

Zoey (… or is it ‘Lara’?)

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How Media Constructs Our Reality – Apodaca Prison Riot and Beyond

On November 10th, 2012, there was (yet another) prison riot in the news. 27 inmates were killed in Sri Lanka during a clash between inmates, security, military, and police ‘commandos’.

It is absolutely fascinating when Western media discusses events like this, violent events that take place in another country, because, without fail, they do not give any sort of cultural context. This is not in the United States. Or Canada. Or even Britain, France, or Australia. This is Sri Lanka, a country that I – and, I would argue, most of the Globe and Mail audience – know next to nothing about.

Why does it matter? Because most Canadians assume that there is an obvious dichotomy where prisons are concerned (…citation needed?). The inmates are bad, the police/military/security/corrections officers are good, and therefore any clash between the two is a simple, objective story of good vs. evil with a variety of results.

Reading about this event (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/27-inmates-killed-after-sri-lankan-prison-riot/article5181194/) just made me wish I knew more about Sri Lanka. What kind of laws put these people in this prison? What is corruption like in this country? What is the gang situation like here? And how long have these people been incarcerated?

This reminded me of a really intriguing assignment my classmates and I were given last year, which asked us to ‘(Un)Make the News’. As I’m interested in prisons, I chose to unmake a recent prison riot I’d seen on the news – and what I found about the framing of news pieces themselves really opened my eyes.

And this is after six years of criminology – will I ever stop being surprised to find to what extent our ‘reality’ is constructed by the media?

The Story as Western Media Tells It

In the early hours of Sunday, February 19, 2012, members of a Mexican drug cartel known as the Zetas instigated a riot in Apodaca correctional state facility in Apodaca, Mexico. According to various news sources at the time, at least nine guards working in Apodaca prison aided the Zetas in escaping their prison cells, and confessed to doing so during the investigation of the riot. This investigation found that the Zetas staged the prison riot as a distraction in order to facilitate an escape attempt. The Zetas were released from their cells and “slaughtered 44 rival inmates”, who were members of the Gulf cartel. Thirty Zetas managed to escape the prison compound and “are still at large” at the time of reporting.

From this point, the story as it is related by news media began to focus on the weaknesses of the Mexican criminal justice system, overcrowding as a fatal issue in Mexican and/or Latin American prisons, corruption in this system, and the failing drug war in Mexico spearheaded by President Felipe Calderon.

Meaning?

While the story described above may be the ‘facts’ of the prison riot as they can be understood from a variety of news sources, the actual generation of the meanings of these representations mean much more for the cultures they are generated within than the cold facts of a news story.

I won’t get into the nuances that my 14 page paper gets into – although I would love to talk about it with anyone who has an interest. In short, the language of Western media repeatedly refers to overcrowding as an issue in these ‘violent’ and practically lawless countries, while drawing comparisons and parallels that make no sense – for example, one newspaper cites 350 killed soon before in a prison fire in Honduras as proof that violence in these countries is essentially rampant.

This prison fire, like most of the riots discussed, was linked to “harsh overcrowding”. This harsh overcrowding is talked about like a distant thing, a problem of these far away, ‘uncivilized’ countries – never mind that Canada has a painfully high rate of overcrowding, and some states in the U.S.A. may be comparable to Mexican prisons in this effect. No, it has to be a foreign issue of these less developed countries.

Of course, the articles focus on the dirty details of the Apodaca prison riot: how many people were killed. How many days were spent in lockdown. The gangs responsible. The corruption. The overcrowding. The problems Latin America is facing that are so unique to prisons in these specific countries (but not really).

This photograph was displayed prominently on one such article, written by Archibold and posted to the New York Times in February of 2012:

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This photo shows prison guards attempting to hold off family members which, I would argue, appear to be violent themselves in this photo (although the guards don’t look like sweethearts either).

Interestingly, the related Canadian article published on CBC.ca is written and published by a Canadian company and has a distinctly different approach than that taken by Archibold of the New York Times.

This article refrains from blaming the entire country, or Latin America as a whole, for the violence and death as the New York Times article seemed to do. Again, there is a great deal of really fun – from a media analysis perspective – things going on in these articles. One of the greatest differences between the CBC article (actually from the Associated Press) and the New York Times article is that, while the American article chose to picture angry, frightening-looking family members fighting for entrance into the prison, this is what the CBC headlined their story with:

ImageSource: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/02/19/mexico-prison-riot.html

These photos were taken by the same photographer, and are used by different newspapers – in different countries – to discuss the same event.

Fascinating.

My point?

Sadly, you can’t believe everything you read in the news – not if you want to know the truth. While the notion of ‘truth’ is intangible and abstract for some, I personally prefer not to have that nebulous concept filtered through a newspaper that carefully chooses its photographs to achieve a certain effect.

After scouring the internet for translated Mexican news of some sort that covered this riot, I eventually found the story as it was described by local media: a story of uncertainty, of potential tragedy, as families waited outside of the gates for days on end waiting to hear who had died, who had lived. Was their father, son, brother, lover, cousin one of the dead? This slice of humanity – completely ignored by American media and touched on with one photo and a paragraph in Canadian media – captured the local people until this crisis ended.

So what really happened in Apodaca? What really happened in Sri Lanka?

It depends on who you ask.