Sexism in Games: We can do better

Hawken Office Prank Has Surprising Result (GamePolitics.com)

I think every creative realm has its own issues, especially at the intersection of diversity and marketing. I’ve never seen someone argue that gaming is not more friendly towards men than it is towards women, because the fact is men are usually the target for games, and men generally make them. Arguing that this is a problem can be very complicated for me because I’m a white man, and I have a lot of fond memories about games.

A lot of fury has been raised over the issue of sexism in games recently–probably to the point that some news sites are thankful for the controversy, so there’s reason to be skeptical about some arguments. The shortage of strongly characterized women in games bothers me as someone who thinks women are marginalized in most media. It also bothers me as someone who may have a daughter some day, and dammit I would want her to have at least a small appreciation for games because I think they are awesome. I’m not classically trained in social theory, and while I hold certain beliefs and can empathize with people who don’t often see characters who represent them, I can’t draw from  actual experience as to what that really feels like.

What I do know is that many women in games are built from rehashed stereotypes and cliches. Princesses who are polite virtue slates. Sexy leather-clad sidekicks who occasionally tell you what to do next or get in trouble so the male protagonist can save them. Cookie-cutter girlfriends who are immediately killed in a hail of gunfire so her boyfriend can go on an angsty revenge quest for the next 15 hours. This is the kind if plot that’s easy to come by because it’s easy to write. 

Even if you don’t see sexism in games or you don’t think it’s a problem, games would be better if they were better written.

Great writing and design is a goal that’s always worth pursuing. The possible benefits reach beyond just making games more entertaining, which alone should make this worth considering. At best, it could mean more women playing games. Maybe you think interesting characters and fetching dialog is fine in Mass Effect, but you’re cool with a shooter being mostly mute. I would argue that Bioshock wouldn’t be very memorable without its NPCs and audio diaries, but even without that kind of narrative any game has a set of design decisions. I will argue that sometimes these decisions are made either in poor judgment (and could have likely been prevented if a woman’s perspective was included) or they are made offhandedly without critical thought (and could have been prevented by more–or any–attention to craft).

I’m not perfect by any means, either in writing or how I treat people, and I hope anyone who can stand to read this will share their thoughts.

Portal 2: Lab Rat

Protagonists/Characterization

Good characterization can still use cultural gender roles. In Last of Us, the relationship between Joel and Ellie relies on an understanding of dads/adult men as parents/role models. A lot of people like the game because it has a twist on that relationship; a world owned by plant-zombies will make little girls grow up fast. I think the best scenes are ones where Joel awkwardly realizes Ellie is more of a grown-up than a child. You can argue Bioshock: Infinite similarly. Booker is obviously a world-weary person, and the somewhat naive, bookish Elizabeth has (literally) grown up in an ivory tower. Characterization in BS:I relies more on plot twists than anything else, but Elizabeth isn’t as naive or helpless as you might originally assume. To give more overt spoilers for the rest of this paragraph: at the end of the game you realize that Booker is on a quest of redemption for the hell he’s put his daughter through, while a larger narrative wraps around an infinite universe of Bookers and Elizabeths fighting fate together. The resolution to this results in Booker  basically being removed from existence by Elizabeth, who has the wisdom to see that this is the only way to break the cycle. To me, this is counter to the dudes needing to save women trope. If I wanted to be really conspiratorial, I’d point out that much of the game’s ending hinges on the idea that we can be blinded by cultural standards, and thinking our actions have given us absolution or never questioning where justice lies can lead to ruin. Feminism can find a worthy message in that tall grass, but I’m not going in there. There might be snakes.

Those games have male protagonists, and they do use gender roles as character points, but I’d argue they do so in a way that makes sense towards fleshing out characters instead of just filling in their blanks with gender stereotypes, they use gender roles in a way that subverts stereotypes, and that (even if you don’t care for the story in either game) they aren’t examples of lazy writing. At times both protagonists take a very “man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” macho attitude, but I always felt like that was overshadowed by whatever horrible act they were about to commit. At least they had women with strong personalities.

There may not be many examples, but there are obviously games where you have to play as a strongly characterized woman: Beyond Good and Evil and The Longest Journey. Pretty great. Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is one I flip-flop on. Jim may be on a quest to save Sarah, but she commits genocide fairly regularly and the story really isn’t about Jim, so I don’t think “damsel” applies (if we’re talking about the Swarm campaign–Wings of Liberty is a damsel rescue, for better or worse). At a minimum, she’s powerful, she has regrets and goals, and she evokes some amount of sympathy and respect. Some think her character design is a little too sexy, but making her much more alien than woman could be seen as offensive too. If juggling these factors is the game’s worst offense, it’s still doing better than most of the competition.

Notice I didn’t include Tomb Raider; I thought the game was okay, but I didn’t care for the characterization. I thought Lara worked herself up a lot over shooting her first adversary, then got over it really fast. I also felt like she was being pushed through the whole game, and that made her feel weak. So there’s an example of not being able to identify with a female persona and thinking she was poorly written. My view on her character is also informed by design decisions in the game, such as the lingering death scenes or when her side is impaled by a piece of rebar. People can get hurt or die in games, but Tomb Raider really wanted me to see that,  it was uncomfortable, and it affected my view of what Lara was supposed to represent. If that informs my other opinions, so be it.

Obviously a lot of men have played those games and liked them; for the most part I enjoyed them and I thought they were written well. Some of my favorite writing in games comes from Fallout: New Vegas and Dragon Age, and in those cases gender is really up to you. When I really enjoy these games or Mass Effect I usually play through a second time as a female character (if my first one isn’t a woman) if only to get a slightly different experience. You can say women should be able to do the same and enjoy games while playing as a man, but the fact is I know I would consider strong female characters a lot less novel if 90% of games featured them. Saying “Men can play as women, why can’t women play as men?” isn’t a fair argument until practically every game features female leads so men can experience what that’s actually like.

In my opinion the real problem is that many characters, even in narrative-driven games,  are completely defined by their gender. Filling a violent game with men is an easy choice. Making supporting character women hot and eager to follow the male protagonist is an easy choice. This stuff may not seem that awful relative to more obvious offenses, but it’s immersion-killing and boring. One of the more immediate examples is Alan Wake’s wife, Alice. She’s there for him to get mad at, to be afraid of the dark, and to design his book covers. Grr.

Like Alice, many flat, filler female characters aren’t horribly offensive…they’re just uninspiring. In a work of fiction where you’re trying to be immersed in a heroic role, that sucks. There is a lot to be said about how important immersion is in games and much criticism tries to articulate how games pull it off. So imagine how it feels to play games not only designed to captivate someone who isn’t you, but which broadly caricature part of your identity. Not every studio has the time or workforce to question each individual in their games is characterized, but I think intent usually shines through. Most problems could be prevented by asking what role mechanic women are portraying in games, instead of just using handy tropes.

Dragon's crown easter egg

An easter egg scene from Dragon’s Crown in which players can poke a captive spirit…who then moans suggestively.

And then there’s the real winners. Hitman Stripper nuns, Bayonetta having clothes just so she can take them off, Duke Nukem, whatever. And these have room for debate. What some people think of as stupid or crass others have said is so obviously ridiculous they create their own meta-commentary. Bayonetta as a character over the course of the game does resonate with some women. Two-thirds of those examples were series that were obviously already targeting men before their latest absurdities. The real question is whether stripper nuns help a game sell, even if you think it’s worth it to give up on at least some amount of women buying your game.

I think one of the more radical things you can say about art is that by making it you are serving as a steward for your creative field–the idea that making something  people like teaches them want more of it. That’s probably the one point I have that may be against the idea of selling more copies and making more money, and I’m not even convinced that is true. It’s not about censoring creativity or anything like that. When a game is made, there’s a whole world that comes along with it; when you add stripper nuns to that world with no other context, you reduce the intelligence of an entire world.

If a swathe of people want more of whatever need it is stripper nuns serve, I’d rather not teach them to want stripper nuns. If that’s naive, fine.

Marketing/Money

Most conversations about these things are based on conventional wisdom because making the same bad business decisions over and over again is less likely to get you in trouble than making new mistakes. From a business perspective, using tired tropes isn’t as bad as doing something weird people don’t like. I’d be more willing to believe otherwise if this wasn’t true in basically every business environment ever: iPods, the pre-WoW MMO market, tablet computers–lots of things are supposedly bad or saturated business markets until someone does them well.

“But having a woman as the protagonist means selling fewer copies.” Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy are obvious retorts, but those are well-established series (and I have mixed opinions about both games anyways). Tomb Raider also did not sell as well as Square Enix wanted, but their expectations were warped. Mirror’s Edge is another straw dog, and while it may have not sold well I think it had some pretty clear problems in marketing (and gameplay, depending on your opinion). Either way, a lot of people look to these as great examples of strong women.

Does anyone really think games with male protagonists sell well because they have dudes starring in them? Will anyone ever agree on an exact amount of games that need to sell before female protagonists are officially successful?

And games with female protagonists are, proportionally, way more critically successful than games without. Compare Tomb Raider, The Longest Journey, Beyond Good and Evil or No One Lives Forever to a game starring a dude picked at random and tell me which one you wish you were selling. Some of these continue to be fairly successful because they’re held up as examples of great games a decade later. I would argue that at least part of this is because when you’re a decent developer in a predominantly male culture and your protagonist is a woman, the obvious move is to think critically about presentation. More critical writing leads to better writing. Better writing sells more games than the same game written or designed poorly.

Claiming that games featuring prominent female characters means fewer sales is shaky at best. At worst, it’s a tautology: “Nobody makes games that feature women because they don’t sell. Games featuring women don’t sell, so don’t make them!” The fact is that genre, narrative style, gameplay, and other, shittier things like metacritic score and dollars spent on advertising will have a more profound effect on sales than a protagonist will–regardless of gender. And in a crowded climate where every title is always fighting for attention, being different shouldn’t be considered a weakness.

Indies

braidI may show my ignorance here (if I haven’t already). I don’t think there are really more women making well-selling indie games than there are at large studios. To the point, I don’t think most indie games rely on gender as much as large titles because they don’t rely very much on characterization. Sure the characters in Monaco, Fez, or The Swapper aren’t very detailed, but their piecemeal identity is part of their charm and effectiveness. Obviously the woman you save in Hotline Miami isn’t very complicated and the game features a stereotypical/psychotic male protagonist, but the narrative is bizarre enough that the characters aren’t really meant to be that interesting. If anything, Hotline Miami is a male power fantasy, but it’s vacuum sealed in irony. Likewise, many indie games focus on gameplay over story, and often they have plots that draw attention to their own conventions or to very simple stories presented in unusual ways.

This is something indies do more often than large studios because artsy things make people feel funny. For whatever reason, I know that I’m personally less likely to criticize women in indie games than I am in large titles. I will admit this may be a poor attitude, but indie studios just don’t have the same level of resources, even if they do live and die by their creative direction.

But because there’s often less focus on characters in these titles, it can be easier to appeal to individuals usually left by the wayside. As a broader point, sure gender swaps don’t serve the richest dialog options possible, but if that’s the system you were going to use regardless, why not? Rogue Legacy will give you random characters that can be men or women, gay or straight, and these traits have zero effect on gameplay. That’s a powerful statement, and it takes four words to communicate to players. It’s the sort of simple design decision that just requires a little empathy.

On the other hand, Endless Space is a 4x space strategy game where individual characaters aren’t very important, but every race portrait features (what seem to be) men/male aliens. This isn’t something I noticed on my own, and one species consists of beings made of pure crystal, but it bothered some female players. Precisely because there is little focus on characterization and because each race needs one portrait, showing females in charge or alongside males should not have been a problem. The likely scenario is that there were no women weighing in on that design decision.

Closing thoughts

Rogue Legacy

Rogue Legacy character selection

A lot of people don’t like the word privilege because it immediately gives them defensive feelings. In regard to games, I honestly don’t mind when people point out that I’m the target for basically all of them because it is im-freaking-possible to deny. And because so many games feature characters I’m meant to identify with (to varying degrees of success), when I’m put into the role of Nilin or Jade or even Femshep I have more appreciation for that character because they stand out in the crowd. And that makes me feel even more sympathy for people who feel that way far less often than I do. For me, playing as a female character sometimes gives me a chance to rearrange a little of my mental bullshit, and that’s exciting. Games can be very powerful in that way.

The thought of women being sick of trying to be inside mens’ heads because it’s so common and often poorly executed is honestly depressing. I want more women to try to identify with men, because it will lead fewer women stereotyping me. There will always be macho games. There have always been bad games. There is plenty of room for games that are serious. Game writing can always be better.

And being sexy has nothing to do with this. To me, being capable or intriguing or smart makes a woman sexier, and I don’t think women being sexy in games or wearing skimpy outfits occasionally is something feminists are upset about as a rule; context matters. Personally, whether a character wears something revealing isn’t hugely important to me, if only because it’s something done so often, but I’m not the gender who would be put off by that. Half-naked dudes slathered in machismo are depressing to me, but I have more choices in portrayals of my gender than a woman would. I don’t think anyone wants to see all the sexy removed from games, but I know a lot of red-blooded men who thought the direct camera pan to Miranda’s butt in Mass Effect 2 was either absurd or hilarious. I don’t think either reaction is what was being sought there, and I bet many–though probably not all–women thought it was juvenile.

I mentioned Rogue Legacy and how some of your characters can be gay. This caused a handful of annoyed transgender and transexual people to ask why gay and straight were the only options. It was largely an interesting question, but the end result was a bunch of people angry at a developer who was trying to be more inclusive. This is a whole other topic, but I don’t think genuine outrage should be the response to someone who is trying to be genuinely inclusive in a positive way; if a group feels like they’ve been left out wholesale they should say so, but even developers who are purposely trying to write a narrative that is compelling to marginalized groups shouldn’t have to obsess over whether something is politically correct. I don’t think any of what I’ve said has to do with being purely politically correct; I think games can do a lot of good things when they’re intentionally politically incorrect. Games obviously can’t please everyone. I think games are often a great way to offend people in positive ways.

But it’s only an asset when offense is the intention, and the best way to monitor this is to hire women to work on your games. There will always be games made specifically for men, but if a talented woman applies to work for a studio they should be seen as bringing an extra view to the team, and that’s valuable. I’m not saying half of the girlfriend saving scenarios should be replaced with boyfriend rescue quests; I’m suggesting that in either case a critical examination of your creative work and inviting women to weigh in will result in better games. If you want to view equality as a bonus, fine. I won’t tell anyone, because everyone will be happier and have more fun. The real solution lies in making more games with women who are portrayed well. Making games is expensive and it may be viewed as a risk, but Kickstarter and tools like Unity have already done much to make development easier and a much safer business venture. Niche indie markets have become much more accessible through these tools, and maybe those markets are the best place to really start.

Those are my thoughts on the problems and why fixing them is worth it. Hopefully they include an indication of how to do so. One sentence? If you write better women, you’ll write better games and sell more copies. At least that’s my opinion as someone who is trying to write for a living.

Am I currently working on a commercial game? Nope. I am part of the problem.

Some resources

David Gaider’s GDC 2013 talk about sexism and sexuality  in games

Anita Sarkeesian’s Youtube Tropes vs Women series

A panel lead by Leigh Alexander from GDC 2012 titled Writing the Unsung Experience: Gender in Storytelling

Edit: I’m adding this reference after the fact–with more to come, most likely–because Scalzi hits how I feel on each point much better than I could articulate myself: Quick Notes on my Personal Feminsim – John Scalzi

Edit: The good people at Gearbox have always presented Borderlands 2 as an inclusive game. While the game isn’t perfect, this post from Anthony Burch (the game’s main writer and generally awesome game discusser via HAWP) points to how they tried to make BL2 more inviting. Again, not perfect, but the message is clear: making more inclusive games comes down to taking a few extra minutes to think about other people.

 

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