July 30th, 2010

After running Heroine Sheik since 2005, I am excited to say that I’m moving on to new things. My new website, Our Glass Lake, is now up and running!

If you’ve enjoyed the blog here at Heroine Sheik, do check out my new online home. Last year I started grad school at UC Berkeley, and I’ve left the life of a full-time journalist behind. My new site will have info about my academic endeavors. If you’re visiting Heroine Sheik for the first time, feel free to browse through a list of the many articles I’ve written on topics of sex, gender, technology, and video games over the last five years–or just check out the recommended reading list.

Thanks to my long-time Heroine Sheik readers. I’m sure our paths will cross again!

April 28th, 2010

Hey, Heroine Sheik readers. How’s it going? You, uh, been okay? Yeah, I know I haven’t called in a really long time. Life has just been, complicated… you know? I hope we can still be — /awkward smile — friends.

Thing is, it turns out the life of a grad student, one with multiple S.O.s and a constellation of awesome friends living in a city full of shiny things (trampoline park, so soon!) is pretty darn busy. Unfortunately that means less time for gaming, and cybersex, and yes, blogging. It’s not you, it’s me.

The truth is though, it’s not just about time. We’ve drifted apart. I’m in school for comparative literature these days; the journalism is on the back burner. Sure, sometimes I come home wanting to write about sex in new media, but just as often I’m dying to rant about gender in The Aeneid. Heck, sometimes I want to post photos from my goofy art projects. And this just isn’t the space for that, you know? It’s not that this relationship doesn’t mean a lot to me, but I need a website where I can be more than the blogger I was when we met. I hope you understand. If not, here’s a someecard’s card to ease the parting blow.

So, yeah, after five awesome years of blogging here at Heroine Sheik with you awesome readers (especially you loyal maternal folk who wrote me over the last few months to make sure I wasn’t dead and stuff — thanks for that) I’m switching over to a new site: Our Glass Lake. Lolita reference, anyone? Yeah, I didn’t think so, but it makes me happy.

Our Glass Lake is still a work in progress, but once my web designer — see: long-laboring husband — finishes it will be
1) a blog where you’ll find me writing on a wider variety of sex/gender/life related topics
2) a better archive of my journalistic work
3) a collection of my creative projects
4) a more holistic online avatar (i.e. me!)
5) my new home on the teh interwebs

I hope you’ll join me over there sometime, loyal, new, or accidental reader. Also, don’t hesitate to wander old Heroine Sheik posts. For suggestions, see the recommended reading list on the right-hand side. Sometimes it scares me how much content has accrued here. Apparently I wrote all that. Is it wrong that I get nostalgic reading comment section troll wars of days passed?

October 26th, 2009

The Beatles: Rock Band addiction, like all good addictions, has begun with anti-social behavior and healthy dose of cultural critique. Instead of going out with friends this past Saturday night, my husband Scott and I stayed home to crack open our latest purchase. I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was old enough to crawl toward the play button on a CD player (so, like, the age of 14), and Scott has been boning up on the oeuvre in preparation for the game. Five hours later and nearly a decade of pivotal rock albums later, a few observations emerged:

1) Ooh, it’s pretty! From the intro to the menus to the newly buffed and sparkling on-screen notes, Beatles: Rock Band is lovely. (This would be the appropriate place for song lyric references slipped in, wouldn’t it, like how the whole things shines like Lucy in the sky with diamonds, but my favorite tunes are the dark and strange ones, and nothing in this review quite screams “I am the walrus”).

2) Hey, Beatles songs! Yes, that’s obvious, but it really is a pleasant surprise every time I advance through the story mode to uncover more songs I actually know and like. Take that, 80% of all songs on all previous music games.

3) I am staring a bunch of men. Attractive men. For hours. And the people staring with me, they’re all women. Gender commentary hungry as I am, it’s of course this last observation I want to talk abut.

Music games have never been the most explicit of genres, but they’ve still given us — and by “us” I mean the same ol’ implicitly male player — our fair share of beautiful women to gaze upon. Rock Band 2 for the Xbox 360, for example, with its character creation options, allows you to make scantily dressed rock starlets along with rock stars. Thanks to a particularly creative friend, our copy even has a topless, rockin’ Ada Lovelace. True, for the most part, the eyes of a participant stay on the notes/words, not the on-screen bodies, but they’re there, and emphasizing their watched-ness are the crowds of fans cheering them on.

Beatles: Rock Band, by contrast, has no female avatars to strip down and hand a guitar. There’s Paul, John, George, and Ringo: dressed, slightly cartoonish, but handsome nonetheless. The audience, at least in the early gigs before concert venues melt into studio recording sessions, has transformed from a gyrating mass of coed music lovers to a swarm of screaming, swooning young girls — each with identical faces and dark, glossy eyes. We watch The Fab Four sing to us about love, and along with us peers a female gaze full of longing several thousand strong.

Where does this leave the presumed player? Does his male gaze become a female one as his viewing of these four attractive men gets elided with that of the all-girl audience? At the same time the game links him to the Beatles themselves as he — or she — plays the same notes as Paul or John. On the one hand we’re back at the old transvestitism debate. On the other, we have a new way of regarding Beatles: Rock Band, with its feminine aesthetic and cross-gender appeal: as a distinctly female game that challenges the male gaze at the same time it presents us with a stereotypical division between the musical talent of men and the historical fandom of women who can do little more than scream along.

October 20th, 2009

I have officially entered the future. Or, more accurately, I’ve entered the present — only a year or two behind my contemporaries. After much debate I broke down earlier this month and bought an iPhone. I had been using my husband’s for reviews, and finally decided that I was missing out on enough button pushing it was time to get my own. Surprise, surprise, one of the first apps I downloaded was Popcap’s Bookworm, a word-nerd favorite of mine that has, in its original PC incarnations, brought me many happy hours of Scrabble-esque satisfaction.

However, I can’t say I’m enjoying Bookwork on the iPhone. It’s not that Popcap, diligent as always, has gotten anything wrong with the app. In fact, it’s its sheer usability that’s bumming me out. I can — and do — start up a new game every time I have two minutes at the bus stop, thirty seconds in the coffee shop line. This should be a good thing; it means Bookworm is easy to start and stop, as well as generally addictive. Unfortunately, in having so much access tothe game, and in tiny snippets, I’m getting a much less satisfying play experience.

What I miss is the separate space of play — of having to sit down at my computer (or even better, in front of a console) and decide to start up the game, forsaking all other windows, all other tasks. This made Bookworm feel like a special activity, a treat, contained in its own (oh dear, I’m going to say it) magic circle. Mobile gaming breaks the magic circle into shards, making it permeable, accessible, but also less, well, magical.

iPhone games aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and certainly the world of the future — have I mentioned all the emails I send via my phone are signed “Sent from THE FUTURE”? –deserves quick play moments to fill morning commutes. Still, I hope that as the video game industry progresses from the macro to the micro we remember the immersive experience of setting time and space aside to play, instead of letting that magic disappear into our everyday lives.. even if that magic is as simple as the feeling of success when a green, nearsighted worm chomps down on my occasional six-letter word.

October 17th, 2009

Because there likely wasn’t enough pixel art of women bound and gagged yet in your day, I just wanted to point out these awesome images from Auntie Pixelante, creator of Mighty Jill Off.

Also excellent is Pixelante’s tiny “Choose Your Own Predicament Game.”

October 15th, 2009

A game set among the mentally ill has the potential to be lots of things — eerie, revealing, maybe even funny. A game with the dark, stylized Batman aesthetic set among the mentally ill has the potential to be, well, great. Unfortunately Batman: Arkham Asylum, for all the respectability it’s garnered for the series, is not great, or revealing, or funny. It’s not even eerie — unless you count its belabored character rendering, in which case ooooooo, quake with fear.

Insanity, the classic gothic trope of cinema and literature alike, makes our spines tingle specifically because it hits close to home. Those we see as “crazy” in art are not monsters, not impossibilities from beyond the grave, but flesh and blood human beings who vary from the norm in plausible and thus unnerving ways. Arkham Asylum‘s first and biggest failing comes in the missed opportunity to spook us out with (putting aside the possibility of making us think meaningfully about) with the uncanny. Instead we’re confronted with familiar Batman villains, inhuman goons, and the generically committed.

Also not doing the game any favors in the uneasy ambiance department: the game’s graphics. I would have much preferred a simpler, more stylized aesthetic, perhaps influenced by Batman: The Animated Series, which would have allowed the atmosphere to remain ripe for stealth without the over attention to detail, which is currently derailing the visual experience of navigating Arkham. Batman does earn points for one type of uncanniness: the uncanny valley of its stilted, “realistic” characters. I could go on a boating expedition up the Congo in the creases in the Dark Knight’s face. And who thought it was a good idea to have us watch 90% of the game from behind a rippling black cape, an impossible feat of rendering?

At its brief, best moments, Batman: Arkham Asylum reminds me of Bioshock — as voiceovers from the Joker flood in through padded walls. At its worst, or I should say its most mediocre, it feels like an excellent game that could have been. Maybe other players, less eager to turn a corner and see deranged doctors performing sadistic cosmetic surgery, will be content with the gameplay. I for one was let down again and again by the lack of insanity in this house of the insane.

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