Saturday, June 6, 2015

On Virtual Bodies, Aspirational Projection, and (Kin)aesthetics of Power Fantasy

[This post contains mild spoilers for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance]
[TW: discussion of violence, references to depression, homophobia, sexual objectification]

Talking about games as “power fantasies” is certainly a rhetoric that videogame critics have indulged in for quite a time now. The context for labeling games as such often involves criticizing the overabundance of AAA games centering on violent modes of interaction and simplistic narrative tropes with conservative gender politics (e.g. the powerful male hero defeats other men in combat to save the damsel in distress). Critiques invoking “power fantasy” often go along with calls for games with warmer, more pedestrian stories and a diversification of authors and subject matter. “Power fantasy,” for good reason, is often a derogatory term to describe a game that doesn’t engage with anything outside of typical, thoughtless, and often masculinized systems of violence that the mainstream game industry consistently regurgitates at us. But lately, instead of outright dismissing power fantasies, I’ve been thinking about how even though a focus on violent power fantasy limits games, their aesthetics of violence can be quite diverse, and categorizing all power fantasy as worthless and homogenous is reductive. I’ve been thinking about how individual players react differently to different kinds of power fantasy and what that might say about our relationships to games and our desires and ambitions. And no, I’m not talking about some primal lust for violence or other such nonsense. Luckily for me, last month (as I was finishing up Bayonetta), smart critics were exploring similar threads.

Kaitlin Tremblay wrote about different motives for choosing character classes in videogames, including how we as players see ourselves or want to see ourselves in the real world. Tremblay says that she plays “loud, boisterous, overly hulked up man characters”--Brick and Salvador in the Borderlands series--because they “unapologetically take up space,” something Tremblay strives to be able to do in her own life. She says that in real life she tends to stay out of people’s way as if invisible, but in games, Brick and Salvador present a power fantasy that allows her to assert a presence and strength that she aspires to. For Tremblay, playing big bulky men allows her to perform a physicality and personality that she doesn’t typically experience in real life. And that’s just what power fantasy lets players do--perform what we don’t or can’t in the real world in a controlled environment in which the consequences for “fantastic” behavior are mitigated.

Like Tremblay, I too tend to stay “small” and out of the way. I feel like I’m always the person waiting in a line in a cafeteria or dining hall who people walk in front of to get to the hamburgers on the other side of the line. But unlike Tremblay, in videogames, I tend to identify with characters who coincide with my smallness or my short and skinny body. Playing the huge characters with brute strength often doesn’t feel “right” to me; their typically slow movements and largeness means they’re more vulnerable to attack. Even though these types of characters are usually able to take more damage than other classes, I prefer feeling safe in smallness or the ability to escape or avoid danger.

My favorite character in the new Super Smash Bros. is the Villager (particularly the girl with pink hair and sparkly eyes). She’s a tiny, adorable, harmless-looking cartoon who destroys fools with pedestrian objects like gardening tools, umbrellas, and turnips. Her attacks with strong kickback and good range subvert the expectations of her cutesy aesthetics. Part of the power fantasy is this aesthetic subversion; I like the idea of disrupting people’s expectations of me based on past behavior. I resent my social anxiety and shyness mostly, but I sometimes get to surprise people for it with some enthusiastic outburst or intense drunken dancing. A lot of people were surprised when I dyed my hair pinkish red because my “small” behaviors similar to Tremblay’s description of her own led others to believe I wasn’t “outgoing” enough for a distinct appearance. On the Gaur Plains stage, I like to play the small, quiet Villager standing on a platform right below the top of the screen and jump up to whack unsuspecting or distracted opponents with my turnips. Dirty, I know.

My other strategy with the Villager is pretty damn cheap. I tend to spam Lloid rockets at my opponents while dodging behind a tree I plant as enemies get close. That “FUCKING TREE,” as my friends call it, does incredible damage when I chop it down and let it fall on an opponent, launching her across the screen. It’s a lot of fun frustrating my friends with the rockets and punishing them with the tree if they dare get too close, all while the Villager sports that morbidly innocent grin. It’s also probably unfair. Over at Offworld, Aevee Bee wrote about a similar playstyle using the character Ramlethal in Guilty Gear who keeps opponents at bay with huge airborne swords that allow her to become “someone who controls the conditions of touch.” For Bee, the power fantasy Ramlethal provides involves the power “to hurt but not be hurt” as a metaphor for protecting her gains towards “being happy in a human body” while the stakes are so high as long as everyone threatens to invade either physically or emotionally. My own practice with the Villager represents to me my need born of anxiety to create a comfort zone that pushes people out and my ire at those who would threaten that comfort by getting too close. This power fantasy, unlike Tremblay’s choice of Brick and Salvador, is not an aspirational projection. I don’t like this behavior of mine. Without my knowing, I made someone I thought was nice and cool think I hated them. Even some of my best friends say they’ve wondered if I even like them. My one friend calls me “cactus-y.” My strategy with the Villager represents some of my current problematic tendencies rather than ones I aspire to.

Aevee Bee’s great piece was the first that helped me understand how violent power fantasy can craft a language in which we project our emotional struggles of real-life interpersonal conflict on to the physical struggles of virtual bodies. The aesthetics of the characters we embody and the enemies or obstacles we face, as well as the kinaesthetics of combat, piece together some warped mirror that reflects back some aspect of ourselves, an aspect we wish to see in ourselves, or a mix as Todd Harper's "Lady Boss" character in Saints Row 3 does for him. While the Villager is a more reflective power fantasy for me, my aspirational ones involve a unreal physicality that can perform speed, nimbleness, and perfect acrobatics. With characters like Sheik, Fox, Zero Suit Samus, and Meta Knight in Smash, I like to maintain an aggressive unpredictability. These characters can run across the map, deal out damage in swift combos, and dart away once things get hairy. Their attacks and movements display a mysterious and unreal dexterity that allows them to juggle opponents with ease and dodge their attacks. There’s a chance that these characters can be perfect in their performance, as Bee says: “untouchable.” The big, slow characters like Ganondorf and Bowser will necessarily be hit, but they can take it (Ganondorf can charge his warlock punch through enemy attacks), while the characters I usually play should be dangerous forces that gracefully avoid other dangers. To look at games outside of Smash, here is another example of this physicality: 

The first time I saw this cutscene I thought about how cool it would be to be able to perform that sort of physicality in real life--to perfect this deadly dance of flips, kicks, dodges, sword slices, and various contortions. Near flawless skill in the face of danger. A few years after I first played Metal Gear Solid 4, I was able to perform this physicality in a virtual body in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Now, I’ve already talked about how aesthetics in character design and kinaesthetics of combat affect how we perceive the power fantasies we consume. But we also can’t neglect the importance of narrative context in shaping our understanding of why we use such powers in a diegesis.

Metal Gear Rising invalidates the “coolness” of the power fantasy by having Raiden self-categorize as a monster whose only skill is hurting people. The pain of his past as a brutal child soldier and his guilt at his continued violent tendencies makes him a somewhat uncomfortable character to inhabit, especially after he embraces his “Jack the Ripper” persona. He resolves to save others, especially children, from turning into killing machines at the hands of tyrants like he was. It’s a self-deprecating sort of power fantasy about feeling worthless--like some inhuman cyborg--while trying to redeem yourself by preventing others from experiencing the same pain. Raiden performs a perfect physicality of precise movements and strength so that no one else should have to. He’s a Christ figure of sorts who instead acts as a negative example to his followers--he reprimands George for wanting to be a powerful cyborg like him. (I don’t know consume much superhero media, but I could guess that this sort of thing is a trope for the genre.)

Much like the average videogame player (presumably), Raiden has a problematic relationship with violence (virtual in the player’s case), but genuinely cares about the world and the people he is close to. As Aevee Bee concludes in her Offworld piece, “It’s not that I want to really hurt anyone. I just want to speak with the language of that power.” Raiden seems to think that physical violence is the only language he can use for his purpose--to keep people safe--just as the videogame industry often appears to think violence is the only way to let players interact with games. While I don’t know if Raiden has a feasible alternative to violence, I know that videogames can give players a language other than violence to interact with their worlds and build meaningful experiences. But as myself and other critics have made clear, violence in games can be an effective way to explore ourselves and project our conflicts onto situations in a controlled environment.

Lastly, I want to talk about Bayonetta. Bayonetta is, as Todd Harper suggested after reading Bee’s piece, another example of an “untouchable” character. In between punching, kicking, shooting from her stiletto heels, and occasionally turning into a panther, a crow, or a group of bats, she does tumbles and flips around enemies. At the precise moment before being hit, she can dodge out of the way, slowing down time to recover and dole out swift combos summoning demonic appendages made of her hair. Her acrobatics are flashy, graceful, goofy, and famously (or infamously) sexualized. She flaunts her body at the camera, teases characters in the cutscenes, and exudes a cool attitude and nonchalant swagger, all while beating the crap out of fascist angels.

The power fantasy of Bayonetta resonates with me as I struggle to come out as bisexual to my friends and family. Besides a simple desire to be able to feel sexy, snarky, and mysteriously powerful, I project my aspirations of confidence in my sexuality onto Bayonetta. I want to be able to express my sexual identity casually, with a boldness that is threatening--like how many perceive Bayonetta’s own sexuality as “threatening”--to those who might throw emotional abuse my way. I want to feel comfortable about myself in an arrogant way that scares people who would threaten my comfort by invalidating my feelings and trying to reshape the narrative of my identity, like the hierarchy of angels planning to usher in a new world order by remaking the universe in their liking. I’ve been wanting to take on this attitude for months, but I’ve only been able to enact it through Bayonetta.

But I feel uncomfortable with my indulgence of Bayonetta’s power fantasy. While Bayonetta lets me play as a sexually arrogant character without an annoying hypermasculinity (such as Dante’s in DmC: Devil May Cry) as this metaphorical power fantasy of partial liberation from the closet, some women find the character an example of harmful sexual objectification. I have no intention of interpreting the game’s gender politics because they are very complicated, and I have no stakes in the conversation. But my enjoyment of inhabiting Bayonetta’s body remains in the face of that same body being upsetting to others. Todd Harper, again, wrote about the same discomfort regarding his enjoyment of women avatars in general, including Dragon Crown’s problematic female characters:
“In a way, it worries me that the gaming bodies I often feel most comfortable in are exaggerated and sexual stereotypes of women, because I don’t identify as a woman, or as having a woman’s body, and that puts me in the uncomfortable position of arguing for characters that I enjoy even while recognizing their potential harm to others. To put it another way: can I only enjoy these characters because for me as a cis man, the rhetorical stakes are so low?”
A full-fledged discussion on “consuming media responsibly” in regards to inhabiting virtual bodies different from our own is beyond the scope of this post, and I just don’t have the tools to think about it. The oversimplified, vague answer is to think about everything with nuance, and maybe that's the right thing to do, even if leaving different experiences and opinions in contradiction feels unsatisfactory.

The violent power fantasies of videogames can provide us an impactful way of thinking about the conflicts in our lives. But I don’t know if we can or if we should even try to reconcile the value of virtual violence with our general distaste of violence in the real world, especially when, for some people, violence feels inescapable everywhere. Games have done valuable things as power fantasies (even “male” ones), but games can be and are more than empowerment through violence. And I don’t know how to negotiate the way certain virtual bodies can be gratifying and empowering for some and hurtful and triggering for others. All I can do is speak to the truth of how I project my own experience through the language that games provide.

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