<Exhale> OK, we’re doing this. We’re leaping headlong into what is possibly the biggest issue in the industry today, and I am going to point out right now that this is one of those things where I am free to admit that I probably don’t know what I’m talking about.
Yes, we’re doing a bit on sexism in the games industry. As a middle-class, white adult male (not to mention one who verges on Aryan), prejudice is something I’ve never had to deal with. But to my mind this is an important topic, just as necessary for discussion as horrible publishers and marketing scams. Whether or not there is a sexism issue (something that some people don’t agree with), it still needs to be talked about. Which is why I’m going to load up the Russian Roulette pistol of games journalism and hope I get an empty chamber – that is, hope I don’t say something blisteringly stupid and offensive. Who’s going to spin the barrel first?
So let’s be frank – there IS a sexism problem in games, or at least a conscious effort to consider the male audience more when designing and marketing them. Something that is in itself strange, as recent polls have come to show a roughly fifty-fifty split in player gender as you’d expect. There’s no reason for publishers to aim at a male audience so strongly, because there’s just as much money and success to be had from marketing towards women.
And yet, it keeps happening. Developers working on Remember Me claimed they had to fight tooth-and-nail to get a female protagonist, and in the cases of Bioshock Infinite and The Last Of Us, two superb games with female heroes, both were told that they had to drop the women off the box art if they wanted to sell any copies, something that was done by Bioshock Infinite in the end.But I’m not entirely convinced about his claim. Ken Levine, the mastermind behind the Bioshock series, admitted that the kind of people that were focus-tested for the cover were frat boys. Why? I know girls who like shooters, and even girls who like Bioshock Infinite. There’s no inherent disconnect between women and this game, so why are you acting like there is? Why are you trying to appeal to a young male demographic, when it seems to be the case that female customers are just as likely to get involved?
I can’t help but suspect that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why do we only advertise towards men? Because they’re the only people interested in games. Why are they the only ones interested in games? Because they’re the ones we advertise for. Talk about going nowhere. At least a snake eating its own tail has the sense to choke to death sooner or later and save us all the bother of watching it.
Not to mention the fact that there’s money to be made here. Surely if history has taught us anything, it’s that the really big successes come when you sell to an audience that nobody else is selling to. If we want to get logical and mercenary about all this, surely it’s in the publisher’s best interests to sell to everybody, and not just one bloated demographic?
PRESENTATION OF WOMEN
This is one of the trickier ones, because for a while I agreed with the opinion that it’s not just women that are oversexualised, it happens to all genders in games. But I can’t hold onto that opinion anymore, it just doesn’t make sense. It might be slightly better if it were the case – after all, there could at least be a sense of camaraderie as we all get reduced to unrealistic physical archetypes together. But it’s not the way it is.
First of all, it’s hard to ignore the body trends that seem to follow female heroes. They’re all conventionally attractive at the very least, if not outright erotic. Even more independent characters like the new Lara Croft, Borderland’s siren Lilith, or the mysterious Chell from Portal, they’re all still beautiful, even if it’s a subtle form of beauty. When was the last time you saw an ugly female hero? I honestly don’t remember.But male heroes get to be ugly all the time. John Marston looks like he’s been cooked on the grill for too long. Marcus Fenix is a piece of beef in a flak jacket. Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4 looks like elderly John Cleese. Agent 47 has a head like an easter egg with a scary face drawn on the front. Even Gordon Freeman is a scrawny geek in power armour, growing his own Walter White beard in time for Comic-Con.
Not to mention the fact that there’s a clear difference in attitudes here. Women are often presented as physical ideals, but tend to be quite passive or lack their own agency. Girlfriends need rescuing. Dead wives need avenging. Women are helpless until the male hero comes along. When was the last time you saw a woman protagonist out to avenge her dead husband? Or even have any non-romantic connection to men at all? It happens, but it’s rare. It’s still a surprise, and it shouldn’t be.
And men? Well, they’re often ideals in every sense. Even if they aren’t physically perfect (and they often are), they tend to be dynamic and macho and brave. They’re people we’re meant to aspire to be, in other words.
Kyle Crane, Talion, Masterchief, Grayson Hunt and any of those sickeningly patriotic soldiers from Call Of Duty are good examples of this. They do have flaws, sometimes, but only the bare minimum required to make for some half-hearted character arc before they get over them and reach the end of the story, more perfect than ever. And how did they get over these problems? By rescuing a girl. God, it’s painful to watch.
Last year a poll revealed that 22% of games developers are women. It’s not a great figure, but it is rising. It was half that in 2009, so we can see some progress. But I suspect that may be why we see so many male-orientated games, because most people involved are men. I wouldn’t risk designing a game from a female perspective, I wouldn’t know what that’s like. It would almost certainly fail and be an embarrassment for all involved. Maybe it’s the same thing – all the writers are men, who only know how to write for other men, so that’s what they do. And the stench of stagnation bubbles up in droves.
The diversity of an industry can only be a good thing, because it means that all the interesting stuff is going to get made. Put thirty similar companies to work, and they’ll all make thirty similar products. But get some new people in there, and the really fresh content will arise, just because they have a new view on things that might be interesting or worth seeing. Would I try to write a game from the perspective of a lesbian woman from Paraguay, working in a forensics lab whilst simultaneously trying to market a new line of sun creams? Or about being an esteemed mathematician and pacifist from Kazakhstan with brittle bone disease, two kids and a crippling addiction to cocaine?
Of course I wouldn’t make those games, I wouldn’t know what either of those scenarios are like. I wouldn’t be able to do them justice. But would I play those games if they were made by people who know what they’re talking about? Definitely, they sound fresh and interesting. Look at This War Of Mine, a game that was fascinating to observe, because of how different it was and how engaging and exciting the concept turned out to be, after such a one-sided view in the industry.Besides, people won’t stop making generic, boring military shooters just because women get involved in the industry. It’s been proven that all that shlock can make money, so it’s going to keep happening without issue. But this massive industry is big enough for all opinions. You can have room for both, you do have room for both! They didn’t stop making platformers when shooters were made, you know. Now we get Rayman Legends and GTA V in the same year, I think we can agree that there’s some good variation going on.
I’ll also say this, to those who are worried about games becoming boring if feminine or maternal perspectives get too much space in gaming. Mad Max: Fury Road is a movie about female empowerment and Telltale’s: The Walking Dead Season 1 is a game about childcare.
And they are both utterly brilliant.
Now let’s address the elephant in the room, and start by explaining how I don’t know what an elephant is. You see, for a long time I didn’t understand #Gamergate at all.
I don’t mean that I didn’t agree with the cause, I mean I literally didn’t understand it. I was on holiday when the whole mess occurred, and by the time I got back it had become a labyrinthine tangle of accusations, lies and spite that became too confusing to keep up with. It’s only recently that I’ve managed to get my head around some small portion of what was happening, and I feel we need to go over a few key points in case this happens again.
First of all, I do understand how some people might be unimpressed when games journalism and the core industry get a bit too buddy-buddy. The nature of game development is so riddled with cynicism and deception that the last thing people want is yet another agenda that has the player’s priorities last.
I really do get that, if nothing else, and it’s not a request for journalists to turn their noses up at, it’s not something to be dismissed as the excessive demands of a few radical lunatics. I’m not suggesting that writers pour their every detail out onto the internet for investigation, but there needs to be more honesty regarding gaming journalism in general, because gamers have been lied to and manipulated before, and we don’t like it.
Reading about it online didn’t help much. Some of the articles on these issues were shockingly dismissive of the few valid points made by their opponents, even discarding the misogynistic angle. In some cases it came across as patronising or smug, or even filled with snobbery and distaste. The vigour with which some of them held onto the sexism aspect made me wonder if they didn’t want the spotlight to move onto the proper arguments, like they were nervous of what the fallout might be.But let’s be clear – the hatred and vitriol that was spewing into the feeds of certain female writers and developers is absolutely unacceptable. There is no excuse for death threats, for rape threats, for hacking somebody’s private information. None whatsoever, whether you do it to writers or designers, women or men, those in the industry or just adjacent to it.
I feel shocked that this has to be said, but apparently it does. Any chance of rational debate died when you bastards (and you know who you are) showed just how nasty you can get, how utterly loathsome you could act when somebody threatens you in such a small way. All you did was damage your own cause, you idiots. Who’s going to consider you a worthy member of the argument now? You’re all seen as psychos with no sense of proportion and no idea of morality whatsoever.
I think that’s what depressed me most about the #Gamergate debacle – it didn’t get us anywhere. When there’s this much energy and clashing of opinions, sometimes something productive can emerge from what’s left, some new comprehension of the way things are. It can be exhausting and difficult, but it does happen.
But we didn’t get that here. Everybody just retreated to their own halves of the field, and it became a horrible “us or them” battle. One side saw a bunch of aggressive Neanderthals who weren’t worth listening to, and the other side saw an impenetrable clique of allegiances treating them like morons and trying to deceive them where they could.
Whereas the truth was that both sides had some valid points to make, but you wouldn’t know that over the cacophony. Anybody between the two extremes was pushed to one side sooner or later, and the whole thing became nothing short of pointless. It really was a miserable thing to see. How rare it is, to have so much heat and generate no light whatsoever.
I almost don’t think the sexism angle needed to get involved at all in this debate. There was a genuinely interesting discussion to be had here on the responsibilities of unbiased press and their connections to a heavily biased industry. But before long it became “Oh my god, how could a WOMAN make video games or talk about them?! That’s absurd! Better make horrible threats from anonymity, demonstrating I am brainless, heartless AND spineless all at once.”
There is a point to all this, but the point is that all this is… Well, pointless. Aside from the fact that it’s just a nice, moral thing to do, when it comes to the idea of getting everybody involved, there’s no downside. We don’t lose anything by opening ourselves up to all members of society, we just get more ideas churning.
It’s also not hard to fight these things, if you feel that you must fight them. If you don’t like the games that Brianna Wu makes, don’t play them. If you don’t like the articles that Anita Sarkeesian writes, don’t read them. If you don’t want to support Zoe Quinn, don’t support her. But the industry only becomes more diverse and engaging by having these people as part of the system, even if it would only be through the energy created by those opposing them. Nobody can take your games from you, nobody can change what they mean to you. You only make things better when you respond with open arms instead of clenched fists.
And to those who would look at half the human race and consider them worthless to a whole facet of entertainment? Yeah, you lot can sod off. I’m happy to say that you are a dead end, socially, ethically, culturally and, to my greatest amusement, sexually.
Seriously, all that discrimination? Very unsexy indeed. I couldn’t think of anything less arousing than somebody moaning about the uselessness of women. It’s not getting my engine running, that’s for sure. I mean it, nothing’s going down when you guys enter the room, you’re the equivalent of Radio 4 playing at a funeral. Might as well resign yourselves to the fact that none of you are getting descendants any time soon. Sorry, that’s just the way it is, I don’t make the rules. I just enjoy them immensely.
Have a good weekend, folks!