When the cover art for the blockbuster hit video game “BioShock Infinite” was released, gamers around the world were in an uproar. They were shocked not only by the lackluster art, but also by the fact that it was just another entry into the “Man with Gun Walks Toward Screen” school of video game covers. The box art features a middle aged, scruffy, white male protagonist akin to Indiana Jones carrying a gun. This character, Booker DeWitt, with his downcast, serious facial expression, is positioned in front a burning American Flag with the crisp sky as a backdrop. Not only is this image generic and forgettable, but the corset-defying, most important character of the game, Lady Elizabeth, is relegated to the back cover. Now, “BioShock Infinite’s” cover art will join the ranks of innumerable other video game covers that depict a man with a gun. This box art epitomizes the lack of understanding of diversity that the gaming industry is perpetually grappling with.
In a recent article in WIRED magazine, Ken Levine, the creative director behind the critically acclaimed BioShock franchise, justified the decision for the unimaginative, unoriginal, unsatisfying cover. This first-person shooter is set in 1912 during the growth of American Exceptionalism. The primary setting is a city suspended in the air by giant blimps and balloons, called “Columbia,” named in homage to the female personification of the United States. Ken Levine was inspired by two historical events at the turn of the 19th century, with the floating city of Columbia echoing the aesthetic and culture of the 1893 Worlds Fair. Therefore the generic box art comes as a shock, considering all this interesting material that the game derives from. “We went and did a tour … around to a bunch of, like, frat houses and places like that. People who were gamers. Not people who read [the gaming news website] IGN,” Ken Levine told Chris Kohler, founder and editor of WIRED’s Game|Life. “And [we] said, ‘So, have you guys heard of BioShock?’ Not a single one of them had heard of it. I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn’t read IGN … to pick up the box and say, ‘Okay, this looks kind of cool.’”
Infographic by Patrick Jenkins.
This trend of masculine characters branding the cover of most video games is far from new. Today’s hot-selling video game covers feature military men (“Call of Duty: Black Ops II”), sci-fi men (“Halo 4”), stealthy historical men (“Assassin’s Creed III”) and a gun-toting Angeleno (“Far Cry 3”). As the popularization of big screen heroines pushes to the forefront in Hollywood, with strong female leads like Merida and Katniss, video game publishers continue to largely leave the action to the boys.
Ken Levine is reaching out to “gamers,” clearly an already tapped market in this technological era. More importantly, he pigeonholes the gaming market as consisting solely of white frat boys. Yes, the gaming industry, and gaming culture as a whole, is still abundant with white frat boys, but the demographic is slowly changing.
The gender representation debate is a trending topic in gaming culture. Statistics show that the demographic in gaming culture is shifting … slightly, but it is shifting. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), as of 2012, 47 percent of all gamers in the United States were women. That is a 7 percent increase from 2010, putting women at the halfway mark with male gamers. Additionally, women over the age of 18 represent 30 percent more of the gaming population than males who are 17 or younger.
As far as the game design industry is concerned, there is more of a gender gap. For example, the ESA states that women account for only 11 percent of game designers and 3 percent of programmers. Women programmers make $10,000 less a year on average than their male counterparts, and women designers make $12,000 less a year.
So, this begs the question, why should we care about gender representation in games? Especially women? If women make up nearly half of the demographic, more than likely a few of them want to play as a “bad ass” female character rather than the typical white male, right? Posing these questions leads to others — why aren’t we talking about racial depictions then, as well? Or how many people of color work in game design? What is their pay?
These are important questions to consider, as issues of race and racism still exist in the industry and largely as gameplay mechanics (input methods, character actions, rules affecting the game world and so on). Take for example EA’s “Mass Effect,” presumably a progressive, smart video game, which has only one possible black romance option. If one travels down this road of romance, the non-playable partner cheats on you and gets another woman pregnant. The biggest race controversy in videogame history deals with Capcom’s 2009 release of “Resident Evil 5,” which revolved around a well-muscled white American shooting hordes of mindless diseased Africans. What is more alarming, though, is that “racism” as a gameplay mechanic has been a fundamental aspect of game design since video games’ inception. “Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design” discusses this mechanic: “Within your game, you can create groups of enemies based on shape, color, and physical attributes. They need to look different at a glance. Stereotypes are stereotypes and are made for a reason.” To problematize this matter further, in the actual design industry, a racial demographic study has not been fully developed since 2005. In 2005, less than 20 percent of the game design industry was composed of non-white individuals.
As media continues to shape the way our culture views issues of diversity, game developers are generally still incapable of making a female video game character that is not submissive, emotionally vulnerable and entirely dependent on men, or a character of color that does not fit into perpetuated racial tropes of histories past. As we begin to step into another wave of “next-generation” game consoles with high definition graphics, the ways in which race and gender are fetishized will most likely only get worse with hyper-realistic graphic representations.
In order for these problems to change, there needs to be more diversity in the gaming industry and in actual game development. But minorities aren’t always welcome with open arms. Luke Crane, a tabletop role-playing game designer and Kickstarter employee, asked on Twitter with the hashtag #1reasonwhy, “Why are there so few lady game creators?” Filamena Young, a game designer at Machine Age Productions in Orange County, California, responded, “because conventions, where designers are celebrated, are unsafe places for me.” Young is referring to the numerous annual gaming conventions such as E3 (Electronics Entertainment Expo) in Los Angeles; DragonCon in Atlanta; and the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in Seattle, to name a few. These gatherings still cater to the male gamer, while women are often referred to as a “developer’s girlfriend.” Another game designer, Romana Ramzan, tweeted that she was told conventions are “a good place for a woman to pick up a husband.” Caryn Vainio, a user interface designer in Seattle, replied to Crane’s question with an anecdote: “Because I got blank stares when I asked why a female soldier in a game I worked on looked like a pornstar.”
Let’s face it; the game design industry is still the “frat house” to which Ken Levine referred. Indeed, the very notion of gaming still conjures up images of young men glued to flickering screens for hours on end, fueled by energy drinks and waging online battles unto death. The industry has made some progress over the past couple of years. The recent 2013 reboot release of “Tomb Raider,” for example, shined a new light on protagonist Lara Croft — she defies video game mythologies about women by trading her scanty clothing for a larger range of emotions and personality. But this is a rare gem that comes too few and too far in between other titles. Courtney Stanton, a game designer and founder of the networking group Women in Games Boston said it best in a recent article in The Boston Globe: “It’s true, the industry is not as actively bad as it used to be, but not actively bad is an embarrassingly low bar.”
Courtesy of the MCA.
As the lights dim, six performers take up chairs amongst the spectators seated in the front row at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The audience, waiting for one of only four performances by Brooklyn-based artist Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People, immediately becomes part of the show. Cast member Ishmael Houston-Jones welcomes us with a little heartfelt laughter and a bit of instructional tantric-breathing to get everyone calm and centered. Shortly thereafter, the entire audience is holding hands with strangers and the mood is set as half-séance, half-performance. Spirits are conjured through voice-over audio and a huge parachute is suspended over center stage, glowing a deep blue.
Each show by Gutierrez and the Powerful People was an intimate and inclusive experience in which some 125 attendees were sitting extremely close to, or on the stage. F Newsmagazine had the opportunity to attend one of the performances, and also to sit down with Gutierrez to discuss his inspirations for the performance, the nature of improvisation and how he works with his group to create dynamic, immersive environments. “And lose the name of action” combines dance, sound and cinematic elements to explore notions of the body, life, death and how familial situations develop throughout these themes.
“It’s funny, in as much as I’m making visual art in a way, I’m more interested in creating situations that obviously have a very specific visual read,” Gutierrez says. “What I’m doing is tuning into the particular energy of a situation and the energy of the space — what’s happening in it.”
Working with lighting designer Leonore Doxsee and sound technician Neal Medlyn, the artist has shaped an environment for dancers to physically espouse ideas about semantics, the mind/body connection and what happens when it breaks down. Much of the inspiration for the choreography for “And lose the name of action” is drawn from Gutierrez’s personal experiences with his father’s recent neurological problems and the complex state of affairs these created for their family.
“My father had a series of blood clots. It’s a long story, but they weren’t properly diagnosed for many years,” Gutierrez explains. “He had a couple of these in his brain and they were causing all kinds of problems. He had to get them operated on and everything’s just kind of rewired up there now. He’s maintained most of his motor skills and language skills, but he struggles somewhat.”
During the performance, the choreography features improvisational movements where dancers shift between graceful and erratic dance. The effect conveys a sense of mesmerizing melancholy, stimulating empathy in the audience as we endeavor to follow the shifting human forms. One performer writhes across the center of the stage while several flitter about the periphery, light on their feet one second, and stomping vigorously the next — their bodies ostensibly at war with themselves. Basic gestures give the impression of either elegance or laborious task. Often performers interact, offering assistance to each other during moments fraught with challenging movements.
Gutierrez generates circumstances where failed individual movements exist adjacent to deliberate actions. The visual effect is arbitrarily erratic and beautifully chaotic through the juxtaposition of these opposing body languages. “I work in time, so I’m interested in things changing or the way in which they change and then how one change leads to another change,” Gutierrez says. “This piece has improvisational sections in terms of the movement, but the movement itself hasn’t been constructed to be repeated per se. I think overall, the gestalt of the show stays pretty much the same because it’s not defined exclusively by the actions but more by the overall container of the feeling.”
The title of the performances was drawn from Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet. Gutierrez explains that coupled with his father’s medical condition, this work derived from his internal philosophical debate about life’s complications. Like the great poet, Gutierrez strives to inspire contemplation a propos of the internal conversations one has, what the bigger picture really is and mental vacillations between faith and doubt. The improvisational aspects of the work really hammer this home.
“The whole point of improvisation is not just that the actions themselves are unknown, but that the consciousness of that movement is a very different kind of engagement,” Gutierrez says. “When you’re dealing with real-time engagement and with what’s actually going on, that gives off a very different energetic read than someone just doing something that they already know. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. I’m heavily invested in that consciousness.”
He clarifies his belief that individuals encounter his work differently than in interactions with traditional visual art forms such as painting and sculpture. “It’s very different from making a piece someone will stand in front of for maybe fifteen seconds. Which as a result makes what I’m doing very challenging, because I’m hijacking the audience for a much longer period of time.”
The performance moves along resourcefully and is over before we know it. The residual effect is one of quiet philosophical contemplation, if not recollection. Perhaps some fashioned reflections on “What if?” develop individually. And really, isn’t that what we are after in the experience of other’s experiences by way of performance art?
Map Illustration by Chris Givens.
A severe hankering for street food is a common symptom of Spring Fever. In Chicago, there’s a cause to celebrate the season: after two years of lobbying, the Chicago City Council finally legalized on-board cooking last July, which means quality restaurants, bakeries and other ambitious food truck owners have been able to extend their diverse cuisine to hungry pedestrians.
Though the city’s strict codes on gas lines and parking hours still make food-trucking a challenge, many mobile food hubs are providing some of the most delicious lunch items in the Loop. A solid mid-day meal is important — as is that pocket change you’re saving — so here are a few affordable, charming and delectable lunch options, all in the open spring air.
$8 for Two Tamales
11:00am – 1:30pm
Monday check Twitter
Tuesday Madison & Wacker
Wednesday Clark & Washington
Friday Clark & Monroe
Co-founder and manager Manny Hernandez has decided to bring Mexican superheroes to downtown Chicago, and their most heroic feat has been a smackdown of some of the best tamales in town. Servers don Luchadores masks as they dish out seven to nine different kinds of homemade tamales on any given day of the week. Look forward to the Tamales en Nogada, with ground pork and veal, dried fruit, a walnut cream sauce and a kick of pomegranate, making a landing in time for Cinco de Mayo.
$7.50 for a curry plate
11:00am – 2:00pm
Thursday NBC building
“Curry up or get outta our way!” reads the front bumper of the
Curried Mobile. It’s probably good advice because the gluten-free Indian food is fresh, fast and healthy. After converting an old Chevy ice cream truck into Chicago’s first Indian food truck, the Curried crew now serve vegan and vegetarian plates as well as deliciously meaty curried meals straight from the kitchens of their restaurants. The chicken tikka masala and saag paneer are among the most popular dishes, but look for a tangy chicken achari this spring.
Soups in the Loop
$6 for soup and
freshly baked bread
11:00am – 1:00pm
Owner Chugger Lupo is a momma’s boy, but he should be proud and so should his mom, because the handmade soup from his food truck provides some deliciously heartfelt meals on four wheels. Soups in the Loop was inspired by Lupo’s time in the kitchen with his mom and her cooking, and it has partnered up with Cafe la Cave to bring some of her best home cooking to Chicago. Besides steamy favorite chicken wild rice, try the cucumber and avocado soup. They’re also adding a second truck that lets you build your own salad. Each cup of soup comes with bread from Il Mulino Di Valenzano Bakery.
$8 for a mini slice of deep dish
11:30am – 1:30pm
Wednesdays check twitter
As part of the 17-year-old Caponie’s Trattoria — ”consistently delicious Italian” as owner and chef Dan Lamberti urges — Caponie’s Express carries on the tradition of Italian zest and sustenance. Everything is made from scratch at the restaurant just before departure, so it’s still fresh when the red, green and white truck parks at lunchtime. Lunch items include deep-fried panzarotti and arancini, but the best-sellers are the deep dish pizza and calzones. This season, the Express will introduce lighter menu items like wraps and more health-conscious foods.
$7.50 for a hearty meal
11:00am – 1:00pm
Tuesday 600 W Chicago
Friday 600 W Chicago
Chicago’s “fried chicken food truck,” The Roost, might be bona fide southern comfort food at its best because of the time owner Joe Scroggs and his staff put into the staple dish: fried chicken. To get a bolder, more authentic North Carolina-inspired flavor, the meat is marinated for 20 hours before it’s thrown into the fryer, and preparation for each day’s homemade menu starts at 5 a.m. Scroggs suggests the popular chicken filet sandwich for lunch. New menu items this spring will include grilled chicken salad wraps and kabobs.
~ $3.50 per cupcake
11:30am-1:15pm Madison/Wacker 1:15-2:15pm Franklin/Randolph
Not all cupcakes are served on a crust, which makes Chicago Cupcake desserts unique. Atop a crunchy shortbread, chocolate wafer or pretzel crust, the cupcakes are baked with ingredients like mousse and cheesecake for a creamy, ultra moist treat. Owner Brendan Bolger says menus vary monthly with about 30 different cupcakes on rotation. The Motherload is always a favorite: chocolate cake with peanut butter filling on a pretzel sea salt crust, topped with caramel Italian buttercream frosting, caramel drizzle and pretzels.