So, if you’ve been on the internet recently, you’ve probably heard some of the controversy surrounding certain design choices made regarding the soon-to-be-released 2d fantasy action RPG from Vanillaware entitled Dragon’s Crown. And for those precious few of you that have only just recently returned from whatever magical kingdom you got drawn into and were forced to save with the power of friendship, let me acquaint you with the design decisions in question:
NSFW, I guess, or something.
Art Director George Kamitami, in a statement released long after the internet hordes had bared their teeth and set fire to all of the things, explained that his intent with the design of Sorceress and Amazon, two of six playable classes within the game (and two of three of the available female options), was to “exaggerate all of my character designs in a cartoonish fashion (so that they would) stand out amongst the many fantasy designs already in the video game/comic/movie/etc. space.” Which is an entirely reasonable justification for his decisions. Kamitami seems, on a whole, to be a pretty reasonable and intelligent individual, barring a casually homophobic joke or two. On the other side, Kamitami’s detractors have called the designs off-putting at best, and sexist at worst. And it’s not hard to see why.
For the record, before I go about getting to the point of why I’m writing this piece (and there is a point, I promise), I feel like I should clarify on my own position, regarding Kamitami’s art. I’ve loved Vanillaware’s games, Kamitami’s work in particular, in games before. Odin Sphere was jaw-dropping. Muramasa was gorgeous. And much of the art in Dragon’s Crown is equally stunning. But I have to admit – I do find some of the designs on the playable characters to be unsettling. They remind me of humanoid figures sculpted out of Play-Doh – all lumpy and wrongly proportioned. The emphasized characteristics are so emphasized as to be grotesque. And before you say it, let me clarify – I’m referring to male and female characters both.
Unless you’re really into Gumby, or something.
It’s not just because I don’t like the ladies, or something sophomoric like that. Anyone that knows me knows that I love burly men. (Hell, there are few places I wouldn’t eat chocolate off of James Vega.) But looking at the designs for Dwarf and Warrior, I don’t see a viable sexual partner so much as I see a poor damned creature, covered entirely in very muscle-y tumors. What I’m saying is – this stuff ain’t for me, guys. I can appreciate what it’s trying to do, but it’s not about to go into that folder hidden deep in my C drive.
So I’m much more likely to be sympathetic to the side wanting to cry sexism, here. Like many people, I find the lack of varied female character designs in video games to be kind of disheartening. But the last few weeks of this ‘controversy’ have gone a long way towards drying up any sort of sympathy that I had for either side of the argument. I know that people are dicks on the internet. That’s kind of what you do. But the sheer level of immaturity that has cropped up on both sides, from myself included, serves as a sharp reminder that we, as a culture, have a long way to go if we want to be able to foster civil discourse in our public spheres. In the interest of that, there are a few points that I’d like to make, based on what I’ve observed from the discussion thus far.
1) Just because you don’t like something, that doesn’t mean you can’t respect it.
This is one that’s especially common, and one that I myself have been guilty of. It’s the viewpoint of “this is for me, I don’t like/appreciate it, therefore I hate it and it has no value.” I mentioned above that the art of Dragon’s Crown isn’t for me. It is decidedly non-boner-causing. I don’t appreciate it on a fanservice level, and find it off-putting enough that the parodic level doesn’t really work for me either. But you know what? Some people do. A lot of people do, it seems. And for those people, no amount of judging disapproval is going to change the fact that they like what they like. You can’t change people’s preferences with the force of your furrowed brow alone. Nor should you.
Put another way – I’m sure there are some people, non-homophobic individuals that love and respect the GLBT people in their lives, that are still a little grossed out by the idea of two men doing the sideways tango. And you know what? That’s fine with me. No amount of them being grossed out is going to change who I want and what I feel. You don’t get to choose who you feel attracted to, or what turns you on. So the only rational conclusion to reach is “I don’t like this. You do. Okay.” Respect someone’s individual preferences, even if you don’t agree with them. The sooner we get over the desire to shame people who like the exceptionally buxom, or burly, or whathaveyou, the sooner we’ll actually get to start having real conversations.
Until then, we’ll always have this.
2) Sexism is not a binary division.
This one comes up a lot. I mentioned it in an article I wrote about Anita Sarkeesian, months ago. And it’s not one that I see being made often enough. See, when people retaliate against accusations leveled against Kamitami, they tend to like jumping straight into “But Kamitami intended X.” And that’s all well and good – I don’t think many people are seriously saying that Kamitami has a problem with women, or is trying to say “this is what women should be.” But can something be sexist without outright malicious intent? Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes.
This seems to always be a sticking point for people. Either something is sexist, homophobic, or racist – meaning that it expresses outright contempt and loathing for something, or it’s harmless. Either you’re the Westboro Baptist Church, or you’re totally gender/orientation/race blind. There’s no room for something to be demeaning or objectifying to a particular group, without outright hating or looking down on them.
Kamitami’s art is objectifying. The ladies’ sexual characteristics are so overblown and ridiculous that they define their designs. This is problematic and a little sexist. Are said designs not also parodically-intended, well-drawn, and kind of fun, in a silly, overblown way? I wouldn’t say so. But it’s not a binary division. You don’t have to hate something to recognize the flaws in it, and you don’t have to love something to find something to celebrate in it. Recognizing certain demeaning aspects in a work doesn’t mean you’re blind to other demeaning aspects in a work. And recognizing that something might have some demeaning aspects to them doesn’t mean that that thing no longer has any value. Which leads into . . .
3) Criticism does not equate to a desire for censorship.
This is one that, I think, needs to be heard by both sides of the issue. It’s one that consistently holds back any semblance of productive discussion, and hampers our entire community. It’s the idea that just because you find something problematic, lacking, or even offensive, that you must also desire for that thing to go away. It’s a sentiment that I’ve seen uncountable times in comment threads and reply posts. “How dare you try and censor someone else’s work based on your own sensibilities?”
The thing about this argument is that it does have a small ring of truth to it. There are some people in the Dragon’s Crown argument that would prefer that the art be forcibly changed or simply not exist. Those people are, simply put, total assholes.
People get worked up by video games, get so angry and defensive and mean-spirited while discussing video games, because it’s something that they legitimately care about. That means something deeply in their lives. People don’t criticize something because they hate it, they criticize something because they want to make it better. Or, at least, that’s why they should criticize it. I have a lot of problems with the state of the video game industry. A lot of serious problems with it. I know a lot of people do. And the reason we write, and debate, and argue about them is because they are something we care about. If we didn’t, we’d probably be outside, doing whatever it is that normal people do.
So when people argue that just because I have problems with aspects of George Kamitami’s art that I must hate Kamitami as a person, that I must be desiring for his artistic voice to be suppressed and for his career to be brought to an end, it’s immensely frustrating because that is the opposite of what I want. I don’t want Kamitami to stop making art. I want him to make better, more inclusive art. I want to be able to enjoy the work of an incredibly talented person without having to wince at the lumpy play-doh breast dispensers. And if Kamitami never makes anything without them again, then I’ll be a little bummed out. But at the very least, I’ll have put my voice out there, contributing to those that feel the same way, and hopefully giving Kamitami something to think about in the future.
That’s the point I think video game discussion as a whole needs to take from all of these incoherent ramblings. If you find yourself making an elaborate video on Anita Sarkeesian, solely because you hate her and want her to go away, you’re not contributing to the conversation. You’re not trying to make anyone or anything better. You’re just trying to silence the conversation that doesn’t appeal to you. If you find yourself writing an elaborate post on why people that like Dragon’s Crown are childish assholes who hate women, you’re not helping your cause.
We, as a culture, already have a lot stacked against us. The business model of our Triple-A industry is proving more and more unsustainable. The mainstream media, at best, regards us as silly manchildren. At worst, they demonize us as a corrupting, violent influence on the youth of America. It’s our responsibility, as members of this community, to try and make things better, to try and improve, not just tear down what doesn’t agree with us. It’s our responsibility to be open to criticism, and to be able to discuss with dissenting opinions in mature, level-headed ways. And it’s our responsibility to recognize that, occasionally, there simply won’t be a compromise – and that’s okay. There’s plenty of room for all voices. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, but you do have to respect them. (And don’t be a total dick about it.)