Women and gaming

Recently I’ve been discussing with a few friends about women in the gaming community as a whole. And as it’s International Women’s Day, what better day to post about it? It’s no big secret that the gaming community is stereotypically male, white, middle-class, and geeky. And people wonder why, at the same time images such as these appear on the internet:

It’s like several other communities that have demographic problems, such as the conservatives who call women “sluts” for using birth control then wonder why they turn out for Obama 70-30, or atheists who attacked Rebecca Watson for feeling creeped out when someone propositioned her in an elevator at four in the morning. Worse still, it perpetuates stereotypes about gamers and women in general, most notably, that attractive women are promiscious and can’t be nerdy. Also, she’s using a Xbox 360 controller to control a Nintendo game.

And the overwhelming male nature of the gaming community tends to lock out women too: there are less female developers compared to male developers than female gamers to male gamers (in the UK, the ratio among developers is 1:7, as opposed to near-parity for gamers). And when a woman appears in the news because she helps develop a game? Then she’s immediately objectified: take for example, the creative consultant for the Assassins’ Creed series, Jade Raymond. Before the release of the first game, a comic circulated around the internet of Raymond in a bikini performing oral sex on several male gamers. You’d bet your bottom dollar that that wouldn’t happen to Valve CEO Gabe Newell.

“But the guy who drew that comic also draws rape comics!”, I hear some people cry. “He’s not representative of the gaming community!”. Which, would’ve been an okay argument. Were it not for Jennifer Hepler. Ms. Hepler is a writer for BioWare, and, among other things, wrote some of the most acclaimed parts of Dragon Age: Origins. But, in the run up to BioWare’s new game Mass Effect 3, some quotes from interviews and forum posts made by her started to surface. For example, she reportedly said that she’d like, in some games, to skip combat to follow the story, that in ME3, one chapter will revolve around a member of your team (which can be Shepard) coming out as homosexual and how people react to it, and that she wanted Dragon Age 2 to appeal to everyone and to be as successful as J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. Completely reasonable, right?

Some people didn’t think so. From the Guardian:

Just a few weeks ago, BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler ended up deleting her Twitter account to escape the hatred and abuse of gamers calling her an “obese cunt”, a “fat bitch”, a “whore”, a “plague” and a “cancer”, advising her to commit suicide and making harassing phone calls to her home. (Until recently, a quick Twitter search showed the full extent of this extraordinary harassment; since the closure of her account, it seems that it is no longer archived, which is good if you don’t want your day ruined by reading it).

She was singled out by extremely angry people unhappy with, among other things, BioWare’s inclusion of optional gay romances in Dragon Age II, the way that the developer’s games are becoming more accessible, and perceived shortcomings in plot and characterisation in more recent BioWare titles that Hepler had worked on (or hadn’t even worked on, in many cases).

The next-but-one paragraph says, again, that this wouldn’t happen if she was male. It’s basically pent up rage about the fact she’s a woman who’s in the gaming industry, and because she’s not traditionally attractive like Ms. Raymond, then she gets insults instead of objectifying comments. It’s related to, but even worse than, the madonna/whore dichtomy of old. And that “if a man did it” is not a hypothetical: when Metal Gear Solid 3 got a re-release, the European version came with a disc called Existence, which was basically the cutscenes arranged and rationalised with some linking scenes to form a three-hour movie. And it’s not that bad at all. And Hideo Kojima was lauded yet again for one of the best games of the past ten years.

The funny thing is, Mass Effect is actually… pretty relatively progressive, all told. It’s one of the few game series in which you can pick the gender, appearance, and sexuality of your player character for one, and for Mass Effect 3, the game comes with a reversible cover so you can choose between a Male Shepard or Female Shepard. It’s far better than, say, Heavy Rain, where the female playable character Madison Paige is introduced in a nightmare in which she is almost violently sexually assaulted, and that’s just the start. The fine people at The Border House have a brilliant post about why the character is problematic, so I won’t go into it here.

But the solution, isn’t, as some people claim, to introduce “strong female characters”. The brilliant comic artist Kate Beaton has a comic on why that’s a bad idea. No-one denies that Lara Croft is strong, but no-one denies that she’s also basically a male fantasy made of polygons either. And an unrealistic one, not least because she was designed and marketed to make you focus on her breasts. If you’re in that line of work, you’d be better off looking like Faith Connors from Mirror’s Edge. It’s basically another form of objectification, but instead of the weak woman who must be rescued, it’s now the head strong woman who needs to be brought down.

The obsession with “strong” characters also set them up for a fall when they show a little humanity; it was extremely controversial when everyone’s favourite space marine, Samus Aran, was given actual characterisation in Metroid: Other M. Because instead of the ass-kicking name-taking metroid-killing machine (or, as Bob “MovieBob” Chipman put it, “pathologically emotionless man-hating ice queen“) people had become accustomed to, she was portrayed as emotionally stunted woman unable equip power-ups without permission from her commanding officer or fight Ridley, who, by that part, had traded blows with her four times in the game series alone. Ridley had also killed her parents when she was a kid. And immediately prior to the game, she had lost the only thing she considered family. When you consider that her actions fit very well to the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder, it makes the character (and the game) much much better.

Basically, the solution is human female characters. Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 is an example of a female character done right  (and not surprising: Valve, as a whole, tends to do good characters). She can hold her own, she can fire a gun. But there’s times where she shows emotion well: anxiety at the state of affairs, anger at someone betraying her father, relief that Gordon has got out of his latest predicament. She wears clothes that a normal person in her situation would wear, instead of skimpy and not-at-all-functional dresses and bikinis seen elsewhere. And she’s explicitly not demoted to just a love interest: she actually shows the embarrassment every young person goes through when her father asks her when she’s going to get together with Gordon, who, by that time, had spent the better part of a game and a half with her. She’s treated as an equal to the player at all times, and is neither a chore nor a bore when she accompanies Gordon.

There is a sense that game creators, and gamers as a whole, are becoming more progressive: we’re finally seeing LGBT (all four!), female, and ethnic minority characters that are not defined entirely by that characteristic (thanks to developers such as Atlus).  But like the film industry, it’s not going to change overnight. Any change, however, to the development of realistic human characters, both male and female (as there are also games where the male characters are walking meat bags of OO-RAH!), will help to change the problems in the gaming community, much like it’s done (and doing) to the film industry. Until then, happy gaming and wait for the medium to mature.

The good folks at Extra Credits, a really good web series about game development, have a few videos about the female gamerssexual diversity, and female characters (although they disagree with me on the subject of Other M). I’d suggest that you watch all three videos, because they touch on it in a different way to what I have (although if you’re here, you already have).

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