Rock Paper Shotgun has a great interview with the lead writer from Dragon Age III on accepted sexism in the gaming industry. The whole interview is worth a read, but the crux of the argument is that the gaming industry makes excuses for not pursuing boarder gender representation, because it ‘doesn’t sell.’ I see this tautological excuse come up a lot in the games industry—games with equal gender representation don’t sell well because there aren’t many games with equal gender representation—and it absolutely infuriates me. Even people I really admire in the industry, like Ken Levine, seem willing to accept this idea as fact. I attended Levine’s Bioshock panel at this year’s PAX East, where one of the female audience members directly questioned Irrational’s decision to put Elizabeth—a female character that members of Irrational had just spent an hour praising—on the back of the game’s cover. Levine’s response basically boiled down to: ‘we make decisions because that’s what marketers tell us will sell, don’t worry about the cover and just play the fucking game.’ His call to stop harping over the cover was met with raucous cheers from the crowd (mostly men) sitting around me, as they happily applauded a woman being shot down for expressing her discomfort over how her gender is marginalized in a community she loves.
In Levine’s defense, he quickly apologized on Twitter after the panel. I know that he’d been fielding variations on this same question for months at this point, and a PAX panel was probably not the best forum to restart this discussion. Levine and Irrational are not solely responsible for changing the tide of women in games, and it does seem unfair to lob complaint after complaint at him for a cover design that everyone has mostly forgotten. On the other hand, his defense props up the bullshit accepted wisdom that so many other game devs tout when they explain why they can’t put more women in games. It’s an incredibly insulting idea that women in games mean the game won’t sell; not only to women, but to men as well. Because seriously, what kind of mouth-breathing troglodyte is incapable of enjoying something because it has a female protagonist? Who are these assholes and why does the gaming industry continue to defer to them? If the success of your game depends on appealing to this group of people, then maybe you shouldn’t make that game.
I’m glad that people like the Dragon Age team are standing up to this bullshit and refusing to submit to marketing wisdom that may have been true 15 years ago, but has absolutely no place today, when half of the games community is made up of women. I really believe that the industry is heading in a better, more egalitarian direction and that in ten years this dust up over female characters will be laughable. But for now, it’s important that men and women in the industry and the community continue to openly and publicly support the idea that a female presence is not going to completely tank your sells. That’s the only way we’ll ever be able to prove how utterly wrong this ‘accepted wisdom’ really is.
Well most obviously it means that Leigh Alexander is open to criticism, since she received a lot of it for her ‘Objectify Male Tech Writers.’ The idea to raise awareness about the objectification that many woman face by objectifying men, was never going to amount to anything more than a giant Internet joke and no legitimate dialogue or discussion on any substantial gender issues in the tech/video game community. Alexander herself points out how the ‘objectify’ campaign would have unfairly lumped marginalized men (queer, transgendered, minority) together with the privileged men (usually white) of the tech community. All of these are fair criticisms to raise and it makes sense that Alexander chose to cancel. Still, with a little more thought and planning, I think ‘Objectify’ could have turned out better. Maybe instead of men, the focus could have been on ‘objectifying’ something ridiculous, like actual inanimate objects, to highlight how ridiculous it is when women are on the receiving end of such treatment. The major takeaway from this brief campaign and others like it— #1reasonwhy comes to mind— is that Internet activism is good and all, but it can only do so much when it comes to exposing problems of gender equality. Sometimes it takes more than a few jokes on Twitter or a viral hashtag to accomplish your goal. Still, I’m glad that there are women in the tech community who aren’t afraid to publicly confront these issues and deal gracefully with their failures or their successes, but I think we need to push harder, in more concrete ways if there is every going to be any lasting change.
This year I have watched two documentaries on video game development: Indie Game the Movie and Minecraft. Both have similar goals: to demonstrate the inherent underdogness and the weird-but-lovable nature of indie game developers and both documentaries employ varying levels of emotional manipulation to force the audience to feel this way. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy these documentaries, because I really did, but then again, I’m the exact audience that is being targeted and manipulated, so there was little doubt to what my reaction to these films would be. I’m hoping that the inevitable Double Fine will build on what these two previous movies have already done and present a more even-handed look at indie or small game development and forego some of the pure, innocent, ‘true artiste’ narrative that was overly used in the Indie Game and Minecraft films.
Recently I’ve been playing a little sci-fi cum horror game called Dead Space. You may have heard of it, as it was a fairly popular release from a few years ago. At this point, every one has already talked to death the many flaws present in this game, the fact that it so gratuitously rips off other, better horror franchises being the number one gripe. What you may not have heard people talking about, however, are the problematic gender issues that are present in this game. (If I know one thing, it’s that the internet loves to talk about feminism in video games.)
Player character Isaac Clarke (clever) spends most of the game trying to find his missing girlfriend. As what usually happens in these types of horror stories, Isaac still holds on to the belief that his girlfriend might have survived the horrors that killed 99.9999% of the Ishimura’s crew, even after he spends hours walking around the ship with nary a survivor in sight. Finding her was the main reason he took on this rescue mission to the Ishimura and it’s his main motivation throughout the game (ok, maybe his second motivation after ‘don’t get killed by spooky necromorphs’).
So here we have a female character who is either dead or locked away somewhere, and whose only purpose in the story is to serve as motivation for the (male) character to take action; her presence has no effect on the story beyond that. You could argue that the game needs to give Isaac a reason to run around the necromorph-infested corridors and that’s why the girlfriend character matters, but you’d be incorrect. The game already gives you reason enough to go off exploring the Ishiumura: it’s the only chance you have for getting off the ship. Early on in the game, the vessel you flew in on gets destroyed, leaving you no other option but to try and reprogram the Ishimura and use it for your escape. Perfect; character motivation established. The girlfriend plot is just extraneous and insulting.
If you’re wondering why the girlfriend subplot is insulting, I suggest you spend a little time reading about the history of the ‘women in refrigerators’ trope, a cliche in story-telling where the death or disappearance of a female character is what then causes the male character to take action in the story. The reason this trope is so insulting to women is that it takes away any agency or power from the female and gives it all to the male; it makes the woman’s only purpose to be motivation for the male character. As far as gender issues in video games go, the ‘women in fridges’ trope is one of the least egregious, but it is certainly one of the more prevalent forms of lazy story-telling. This has never been more obvious than in Dead Space, where the subplot completely fails at adding any additional emotional weight or tension to the story, because the relationship between Isaac and his girlfriend is so underdeveloped (as in, it’s not developed at all). If you’re going to insist on using this trope in your story, you have to at least make us care about the relationship first. Otherwise, the subplot comes off as pointless and mildly insulting.
Sharing your life with another person is never easy. It’s hard enough handling your own issues, but relationships force us to combine the problems of two people and hope that neither person is permanently damaged by the other. To be in a relationship is to let a relative stranger in on your deepest, most disgusting secrets, and hope that they still want to be in the same room with you after. There’s a constant battle going on with yourself and also with the person you profess to love, and it’s not clear that this struggle will ever let up. Some days you find yourself wondering if any of this will really be worth it, and maybe you’re better off living alone, trading companionship for solitude.
And then other days you play your boyfriend in a motorcycle racing game where you totally kick his ass, and you think to yourself: yeah, I could keep doing this for the rest of my life.