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From the Mailbag: Satire and sexism in video games « Nitpixels

From the Mailbag: Satire and sexism in video games


This letter was submitted via our mailbag@nitpixels.com email address, to be read on the podcast. We may still do that, but I wanted to get my full thoughts on the subject written out.

Last October, Twisted Pixel released Comic Jumper on Xbox Live Arcade. A lot of people said it was sexist and racist. Twisted Pixel replied that it was actually parodying all the themes people were calling it out for. They pointed out that all of the sexist characters, including the player’s character, were horribly inept and that the moral was that all those themes are bad. Twisted Pixel’s next game, Ms. ‘Splosion Man seems to be taking on those same tones.

My question to you is: Do you think video games can accurately portray subtlety, satire and parody? Do you think slapstick Xbox Live Arcade games are a reasonable platform for this? Or did most gamers think Andrew Ryan created Big Daddies just because he was evil?

Thanks,
Ian

I’m actually very glad you asked this question! It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a bit since Twisted Pixel started to release information and gameplay footage of Ms. ‘Splosion Man.

I absolutely believe that video games, like any other creative medium, are a valid outlet for satire and parody. “Video game” is about as descriptive as the word “book.” Saying that you are reading a book says nothing about its contents, except that it is probably full of words. Is it fiction? Non-fiction? Historical? Is it for children or is it for adults? Is it a religious text? Political commentary? Social commentary? Book describes the object you are holding but it says absolutely nothing of its contents.

Video games are a diverse outlet and they will only grow to be moreso as time continues to pass. There are straightforward platformers that hold no illusion of being anything but a good time, like the Super Mario series. The FPS scene has an entire range of titles, from realistic war stories to shoot-em-ups. There are RPGs that take place in any setting imaginable across an entire spread of genres — comedy, drama, science fiction, history, fantasy, it’s all there. Video games can be an outlet for satire and parody just as well as any book or movie.

The real problem is that satire and parody require a delicate touch. It isn’t just jokes. Parody needs a feather’s touch, not a sledgehammer. If you go too far toward the wrong end of the spectrum you leave comedy and you enter the exact things you are likely trying to parody — racism, sexism, and every other offensive thing you’ve touched in your creative work. Twisted Pixel is good at making strong, enjoyable gameplay. That is undeniable. Games such as The Maw and ‘Splosion Man have excellent gameplay. Their attempts at parody, however, are some of the worst I’ve seen in gaming. They are an indelicate bunch cracking jokes at peoples’ expense, but they seem to believe they are brilliant comedians.

What they are trying to do with Ms. ‘Splosion Man is clear. It is an attempted nod back to the old days of gaming. It is exactly mirroring the evolution of Pac-Man back in the 80s. Namco released Pac-Man, the arcade game that would go on to be one of the most well-known video games ever made. Shortly after that, Ms. Pac-Man was released as a sequel. It was an improvement on the original game, and instead of simply calling it Pac-Man II, they stuck a bow on Pac-Man’s head, drew some lips on him and packaged it is a feminine character. That was acceptable at the time. Hilariously enough, it even went down in history as a step toward involving women in gaming.

If Ms. ‘Splosion Man was just a pink version of ‘Splosion Man with a bow in her head that would be a completely acceptable form of parody. It is absolutely hearkening back to the old days of arcade games and that’s valid. Unfortunately, Twisted Pixel didn’t leave it at the homage. They turned it into something disgraceful.

Ms. Pac Man didn’t interject discussion about her breasts into gameplay. Ms. Pac Man didn’t interrupt gameplay to ask you if she looks fat. Ms. Pac-Man really was Pac-Man, just packaged a little differently — there was sexism in marketing, yes, but it didn’t involve itself in the actual game. Ms. ‘Splosion Man goes in the opposite direction. The game repeatedly reminds you that it is wielding this sexism, and the writing is not enough to save it from being offensive. If you haven’t seen the gameplay trailer, you can watch it here:


“Do I look fat in this?”

“Who left the toilet seat up again?”

“I must, I must, I must increase my bust!”

This is an attempt at parody, yes, but it’s not funny. They are precisely what they think they’re parodying. You can’t successfully parody something you don’t understand — especially when you make it clear that you don’t understand it.

You know what else Ms. Pac-Man lacked? A Twitter account where Namco’s marketing team could make fools of themselves. Here are a few choice tweets from @ms_splosion_man:

  • You like me! You REALLY like me!! *giggle ;)Source
  • Ooohhhhhh…. My video is sandwiched between two images of John Marston on XBLA videos. He’s sooo dreamy….. mmmm….. Marston sandwichSource
  • I just want to thank all the people that are saying Im Sexy *blink blink. Wait….sexist? What’s that?Source

How telling is that last tweet?

Satire and parody in video games is perfectly valid. We live in a world where someone made Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa and it was a good game. Twisted Pixel’s strength does not lie in parody or satire, and frankly, I think their games suffer because of it. They are strong developers, you cannot possibly claim that they aren’t. ‘Splosion Man’s gameplay is immensely entertaining. The thicker they lay on their version of parody, the less likely I am to buy the game. I own both The Maw and ‘Splosion Man, but I will not be purchasing Ms. ‘Splosion Man.

As for the platform portion of your question, I don’t think it matters. It comes down to the abilities of the creators, not the platform. A brilliant person can do brilliant things no matter what you give them to work with, whether it be a flash game, a mobile app, an XBox Live Arcade title, WiiWare, or a AAA title with a multi-million budget. Twisted Pixel’s gameplay is brilliant, but they’re terrible examples of strong writing ability. Everybody kept their mouths shut in The Maw and Twisted Pixel is probably better off keeping their games that way.

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  • TheRandomDude171

    You’re among a minority of people who find Ms. Splosion Man “disgraceful.” Many of my female friends actually laughed rather hard at some of her in game dialogue.

    Here’s why: Ms. Splosion Man is an unrealistic and very cartoony character. If she was realistic like Samus or Lara Croft, you would have a solid point. The reason why it’s funny is because of just how outrageous it is. I’m not saying you have to think it’s funny or that you have to like it, but there’s no reason to cry foul over it.

    It’s a video game. Hell, why make a stink about this and not Dead or Alive or Metroid Other M’s depiction of Samus’ character? Either way, you buying it or not won’t change the fact that those games (and most likely this one as well) will do moderately, if not significantly well in sales.