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Standing up to be counted

April 4, 2010

The Border House, a feminist gaming blog which from now on I am going to read more often, did a great piece a few days ago pointing out just how stupid are the stupid arguments trotted out by developers in an attempt to explain why their female characters are rare/stereotypical/absent (delete as appropriate). The answer: very stupid. Not only are the excuses not right, they’re not even wrong – the supposed justifications are bullshit. (J confirms that most of the so-called technical limitations they talk about are nowhere near as limiting as they claim.)

I’ve touched on this before, but it bears repeating. (And will always bear repeating until the message damn well sinks in.) As a woman and a fledgling gamer, it varies between irritating and soul-destroying to observe the extent to which women are erased, stereotyped, objectified or all three in a medium that should be capable of so much more.

For male readers, seriously. Read the Border House piece and imagine for a minute how offended you would be, how hurt, if people were trotting out that kind of crap in all sincerity. Now please remember that those are real quotes, with a few gender markers changed. How does it feel to be told you and the rest of your sex are inherently less than? not worth putting in? or worth putting in only as passive eye-candy for an audience who is not and is assumed cannot be you?

And that’s just the developers – that’s just the stuff the professionals are prepared to say in public interview. Once you add in the fans, who have neither name nor reputation to safeguard, you get sexualised harassment and abuse, gendered responses to your achievement (either “You’re good – for a chick,” or this), demands for pictures, belittling of genuine concerns, accusations of Looking For Stuff To Be Angry About, accusations of hating men or claims that We’re All Equal Now and It’s All In Your Head.

That’s what female gamers deal with every damn day. And add to gaming a lot of sci-fi, a lot of fantasy, certain corners of the internet . . . I could go on.

I don’t think it needs explaining to sensible people that ignoring, dehumanising and otherwise marginalising any group of people for a reason entirely beyond their control is inhumane and cruel. But arguments from principle don’t tend to work terrifically well on corporate megaliths, so yeah. In this case, though, the sections of the gaming industry that keeps churning out unrealistically-proportioned, antigravity-bosomed, impractically-dressed, impossibly perfectly-made-up female characters are shooting themselves squarely in the foot. According to this report in 2009 by the ESA, 40% of gamers are female, and the percentage is rising. Alienating forty per cent of your potential customer base – great business strategy, right there.

The thing that makes this so incredibly ugly – which is touched on briefly in the BH comments thread – is that there are two battles overlapping here.

One of them is sexism vs. feminism, which, though it’s being fought in the gaming community every day, still extends far more widely, and its basic issues (representation of women, non-stereotypical representation of women, non-objectifying representation of women) are equally important in other media.

The other is hardcore vs. casual. In this particular instance, it’s less to do with equipment owned or hours put in – though those are both undoubtedly factors – than it is about the kind of games you play. This particular debate reached sickening levels in the semi-final of The Escapist’s current March Mayhem tournament (users vote for their favourite developer, basically), when industry favourite Valve went up against Facebook heavyweight Zynga.

Admission of interest: regular readers will know that I would basically marry Portal if I thought it wouldn’t break my heart and kill me, and so yeah, I voted for Valve because that title of theirs in particular has given me hours of fun. But the Zynga fans who basically voted for the same reason – someone told them “hey, there’s a contest, go vote if you like our stuff” – got flamed to crispy charcoal on the forums. Some of them were trolling, sure. And so were some of the regulars.

There were effectively two arguments going on in that epic, 550+ page thread, only one of which was reasonable. The reasonable argument was that Zynga shouldn’t win because of a) dubious promotions – within the rules, but people were questioning whether this should have been the case – and b) making games that don’t work very well. (The lists of complaints and bug reports on the FarmVille and Mafia Wars pages tell their own story, I think.)

The other argument was that Valve are somehow better, more valid, than Zynga just because of a) the nature of their product and b) the nature of their fanbase. A) is easily dismissible: there’s no reason a Facebook-hosted shiny Flash game shouldn’t be as much fun as anything else, it’s just that Zynga’s current crop don’t seem to be terrifically well made. B) ought to have been easily dismissable, but it isn’t, because this is where the hardcore vs. casual argument collides hard with the sexism vs. feminism argument, and the result is . . . unpleasant.

It’s pretty solidly attested that women are a greater proportion of the audience for browser-based games and games marketed as ‘family-oriented’, like some of those designed for the Wii. The common moonbat response to this is “Well, clearly women don’t like real games!” Newsflash: There are many women! We do not all like the same things! And has anyone ever considered that, given a girl picking up a ‘real game’ is likely to get weird looks, mockery, denigration and outright abuse, that’s maybe quite a big deterrent from doing so?

But the other, and more insidious argument – that I saw brought out on the Valve/Zynga thread at least once – is that “These little games are not real games because women play them. Real gaming is for MEN.”

Who the fuck is so insecure in their masculinity that they feel the need to immediately disown any activity women happen to do, or alternatively carve out narrower and narrower fields that are acceptably manly? You might as well say that breathing is unmanly because, y’know, those molecules that are – gasp! – penetrating you! have probably been through about a million women. (And guys, actually. Which probably makes you GAY!!1!)

I think the contingent desperately resisting putting half-realistic women in games is probably the same bunch arguing that Zynga can’t be a proper developer because their games have girl cooties. God forbid that anything impinge on the Fortress of Masculinity that is Real Gaming! It’s the same people who call one another girl and fag as insults denoting weakness, or – especially vilely, given its triggering nature to many survivors – use rape as casual slang for ‘failing at’. (As in: “Your team got raped! HAHAHA!”) It’s probably the same bunch who slavered over First Ed D&D art; before there were animated anti-gravity breasts, there were drawn ones. It’s a small bunch, but they are goddamn loud.

Well, sod ’em. I’ve been hesitant to claim the label ‘gamer’, precisely because of the amount of asshattery collectively exhibited by the people who already use it: I sure as hell do not want to be associated with the people I’ve been railing against. But I’ve pretty much now come to the conclusion that it’s one of those terms that’s got to be taken back from the inside: if women decline to include themselves in that category, it only reinforces the case of the bastards claiming that we don’t belong there.

So yeah. Female gamer. Anyone want to complain?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Schrodingers Duck permalink
    April 4, 2010 11:07 pm

    I’m especially disappointed/annoyed that its Valve fans, of all people, pulling this. I mean, Valve is really one of the better companies for creating female characters who aren’t defined by just femininity + one shallow trait (possibly with the exception of the female characters from the Left 4 Dead series).

    Then again, given that any discussion of Portal can’t go five posts without a “I didn’t like it, Chell isn’t even that hot”* comment (why yes, a woman who has been in suspended animation, trapped in a lab by an insane computer, and put into constant life-threatening danger really should have the decency to put a little make-up on before going out), perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Perhaps they inhabit a parallel universe where Alyx was just a damsel in distress who occasionally posed sexily with a gun before mud wrestling a Combine to the ground.

    *Don’t even get me started on the “Chell looks better as a busty white woman” arguments from the Portal 2 concept art.

  2. Paul Skinner permalink
    April 4, 2010 11:45 pm

    When I’m sober I shall attempt to formulate a rebuttal to this, as I believe certain parts of this ideology are flawed.

    I think my point can quickly be summed up as: you and those who are against female gamers are both in the wrong in that you’re both taking things to extremes.

    And a quick example is L4D and L4D2.

    L4D had relatively few black people in it at zombies. L4D2 had fairly close to a 50/50 split.

    Both games caught the slack for being racist; either because there were more black people being killed or because there weren’t enough black people.

    Try to do the right thing and you’ll end up getting lambasted. They’ve just picked a market and gone for it, so put up with it or don’t play it.

    I couldn’t care less that Popcap games are considered more feminine that Valve games. Both are god damn addictive.

    There’s no point having some idealistic view of nobody using “you’re good for a girl” derogatively (or is that derogatorially?). It’s like hoping that someone other than Labour or the Conservatives will win the next election. Simply, the herd mentality is too far ingrained for anything to change.
    You’re fucked either way if you have an extreme opinion on the matter.

    Either way, I’m sure you’d open a can of whoop-ass on me at Portal.

    I hope there’s some semblance of sense in this comment somewhere.

  3. wickedday permalink
    April 5, 2010 12:53 pm

    The “Chell is ugly” think drives me up the wall. Partly because there are solid in-game reasons why she’s unlikely to look her best, and partly because even reasonable people feel the need to make that justification. It implies that in any other circumstances, it’d be perfectly reasonable to demand that she be picture-perfect – when in fact it’s equally stupid and oppressive. The guys abusing videogame characters for not conforming to an airbrushed standard of perfection are the same ones who do it to real women. It’s a symptom of a mindset, and as such has knock-on attitudes in the real world if left unchecked.

    Still wish they had female character models for TF2, as well. It’s not like any of them are exactly fully three-d characters whose sex is integral to the plot – why not make some of the classes women, or even give all of them alternatives? It’d be badass as fuck and you wouldn’t even have to alter the Pyro.

    And yeah, I was disappointed. And upset. I know statistically that any community has its bigoted fringe, but it annoys me when people who like the same things I do behave badly. I can’t quite work out how people with manifestly good taste in entertainment can fail quite so badly.

  4. wickedday permalink
    April 5, 2010 1:11 pm

    There’s some semblance of sense, but I’m going to charitably assume that being pissed has made you fatalistic, because it’s not very good sense.

    Firstly, I think you basically missed my final point. “Put up or don’t play” is one thing, but it leaves women gamers who just want to play games in a bind: either take the abuse, or prove the abusers’ point that women can’t/don’t play games.

    And I’m not talking about random trash talk, either; everyone does that on behalf of one team or another, and it doesn’t have to escalate beyond “Your team are crap!” Insulting, yes, bigoted, no. I mean abuse, specifically sexual harassment starting from the idea that Joe Q. RandomGamer on the internet has a right to behave in a way to his female teammates that would get him fired, arrested or given a restraining order in real life. And the devs condone this kind of behaviour: look at the quotes on the BH piece, or read up on the stunt WoW pulled a couple of years ago about putting bunny ears on female players. (In case you have to be told why that was wrong: in the real world, we have words for randomly doing shit to strangers without their consent.)

    And yeah, sometimes it feels like the herd mentality will never change, but I guess I have slightly more faith in humanity on this point. The herd mentality does change, and that’s why women have the vote, black people ride at the front of the bus, and gay couples can get married. Even if we literally have to wait for all the bigots to die, things will shift eventually.

    Also, I am not demanding that every game be as overloaded with women as they currently are with men; just that women be represented in a realistic ratio, in a realistic/practical-for-the-setting fashion, and without the constant objectification that goes on. That is the middle ground, and I think it’s extremely telling that this is so often represented as a wild and extreme position.

  5. Seamus permalink
    April 5, 2010 2:51 pm

    “Simply, the herd mentality is too far ingrained for anything to change.”

    Stated at every stage of history, and wrong at every stage. I sometimes feel (when in a What-does-it-all-mean sort of a mood) that this is why people die. Because a person’s mind very often doesn’t change, or doesn’t change much, but no one ever entirely agrees with their parents, and thus attitudes change over time, not by individual minds changing, but by those minds being replaced by others.* And to those people — the young people who are still working on a political philosophy — the existence of arguments like this can actually turn out to be pretty important.

    In this particular case: the developers of Breast Quest 4: The Search for Stripperella’s Clothes (or whatever real game you want to substitute for that) are probably not going to go “Aw fuck, we don’t really represent women as people” and make Breast Quest 5 more balanced. But the game developer of 2020, who’s 14 now and beginning to think “This isn’t right”, when told by their superiors that an adventure game means Manleigh Mann rescuing a princess and then taking her off for sexy fun, may respond that they want to do something different. This also goes for all manner of other arguments in which stating the fairly obvious is seen as extremism just because nothing’s changed yet.

    * I haven’t investigated this closely enough to formulate a proper theory, but looking at history, it appears to me that protest movements often achieve their goals about 25 years, or one generation, after their beginnings, regardless of the relative level of activity at the time that the changes actually take place.

  6. Seamus permalink
    April 5, 2010 2:56 pm

    Holy shit. In the midst of a casual argument on the internet, which I only joined because I’m supposed to be writing my dissertation, I think I just accidentally made my peace with the inevitability of death. Wow. Shit.

  7. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    April 7, 2010 12:55 pm

    That was a very good article on BH, I found it amusing, in the way you do when you want to avoid screaming and tearing your hair out. Some of the excuses are ridiculous though, especially the amount of technical rubbish they try and fob you off with. Making a female character is in no way more difficult than making a male character. Not at all. Animating differences in body shape and hairstyle should be easy – I find it hard to believe that their developers have never seen a woman before – and if you build a good physics engine everything should animate itself just fine.

    I would also really like to meet the developer who said “Creating a character that is fundamentally different from the other characters in the game takes up memory, time, and requires unique writing, voice acting, textures, skeleton rigging and animations”, so I can metaphorically beat them for bringing down the industry I love. EVERY character should be unique, regardless of sex, race, or anything else! I would rather have 10 unique, well-designed and well-made characters in a game than a hundred, a thousand or even a million badly written carbon-copied clones. I’m looking at you, Bethesda. Also, Bioware – why did you start reusing characters in games? Get the people who designed Minsc to come up with some more!

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