Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Gaming - Feminism

Gaming - Feminism

Yesterday, my friend Elizabeth Ludwig and I had a long conversation over facebook about feminism and video games. Sort of touched off by a particular event in relation to E3, but also in a broader sense about the misconceptions we had with each others' perceptions. In the end, I pretty much talked myself into capitulating with her position, but it makes for interesting reading.

Be warned, it IS a facebook conversation, and therefore very ill-written, at least on my part.

That's the original post that set us off.

Lester Lee While I don't disagree with her point, I have little respect for her because she's constantly fighting against only the negatives of the industry, and refuses to acknowledge any of the positives, either voices or examples in games. The quotes pointed back at her are awful though, truly gamers at their worst.

Elizabeth Ludwig As a feminist critic she is not required to pat an industry on the head for doing a few things right when sexism is so rampant. She's provided mountains of evidence of sexism in the industry, been totally articulate, intelligent and reasonable in her criticism, but that's not enough because she's not showing sufficient gratitude for the few times this clearly male dominated industry wasn't sexist? Yeah I call bullshit on that.

Lester Lee It's just frustrating because it marginalizes completely the efforts of so many amazing female developers, designers and gamers. There are many examples of exemplary female developers, designers and producers working just fine within the industry, they fought hard to get where they are and are now well respected. Is there more work to be done? For sure. But to say that women have just rolled over and let themselves be walked over is kind of ridiculous.

When I attend a central hub event for gaming such as Pax or GDC, there are considerably more female gamers in attendance than people might expect. At one point I think we assumed erroneously that women represented less than 10% of 'gamers', that simply isn't the case. The ratio is looking more like 30-70 now, and let me tell you, the girls are just as hardcore as guys are. Sex or gender doesn't effect anyone's ability to play video games, I've been beaten, and beaten others of any sex, gender, persuasion, race, culture, nationality, or age.

Lester Lee She's also slightly incorrect about the XBOX reveal, Quantum Break, while we don't know the gameplay of it yet, had 2 female characters in it, one of which might have just rammed a tanker into a bridge with her mind, and looked all of 10 years old.

Elizabeth Ludwig Whoa whoa WHOA. Feminists pointing out sexism in the gaming industry is NOT what is marginalizing the women who work within it. Nobody said women are just "rolling over." The industry as a whole is hostile towards women. There are women who will brave that and do. But lots won't. And until the culture changes there will not be true equality within the industry. THAT is the problem, NOT the women who are pointing out the problem!

Lester Lee See but that's the point that I disagree with. I don't think the industry as a whole is hostile towards women. First the 'industry' needs to be separated out between the developers/publishers, and their audience the gamers.

Are the developers/publishers hostile towards women? No. I actually think they're ambivalent about it for the most part. Publishers want to make money. Full stop period end. Truthfully most publishers can't, or won't see beyond that. They are a business and they want to make the largest margins possible in the books, make the most money, pay for the most extras and amenities. They're a traditional business model. Developers just want to make games. Publishers have a big book of statistics that say certain games sell, certain games don't, certain games were flops, and certain games are licenses to print money. Why were there 6 new motorsports games at E3 this year? Because publishers paid for them, because they will make them money, money hand over fist. Does the publisher care if it's a female driver or a male one? Only if that decision will influence their bottom dollar. Are the statistics changing? Looks that way as someone on the inside, but how do you argue with a statistician until the data comes in?

It's frustrating because it doesn't acknowledge the progression we're seeing in the industry. I mean this year, in every presser we saw female developers take the stage to talk about their own games. Ten years ago, as my buddy pointed out they would've been dressed in revealing costumes and would've been smiling nicely and been essentially props. Hell I think it was 7 years ago we just did away with effectively hiring strippers to canvas booths and attract attention. The industry realized that the practice was repugnant and did away with it. Yesterday, we saw a female developer from Bungie save their own Lead Programmer and Architect, AND she brought a massive rocket launcher to the party.

Lester Lee Man, I'm writing an essay here. Sorry for that.

Now on to the point about the audience of gamers themselves. I do agree that something needs to change, the comments she received are reprehensible and I'm ashamed to say they came from gamers. But truthfully I don't think that posting the comments on the internet is really going to be the lightningrod moment that stops them. It's harsh to say, but I honestly believe that language of that sort shouldn't be directed at other people, and maybe local authorities need to be pressured to treat those kinds of messages as what they are, harassment or hate communication. Maybe some prominent or not so prominent gamers need to face some real litigation for the ridiculous things that come out of their mouths. Real fines, real penalties, real sentences. Not just being banned from their favorite game for 24 hours.

I'm waiting alongside her for a game developer to step up and really articulate that they won't stand for it. Some are making strides, in Guild Wars 2 they just ban you for life for things like that. Can they check it all? No, but they're making progress. But I'm hoping a major developer/publisher will step up and lead the charge soon, that we're not going to tolerate that in our community at all.

So I guess that's why she's putting them up on the internet, to draw attention to it. Damn, I just talked myself in a circle.

Mike Robertson That XBOX conference was the worst, no surprise that there are pretty much no games with women in them. Can you name a game they showed that didn't have a bland gruff male character pointing a gun at something? The car game? Right.

Basically variations on a theme = lame violent open world garbage. I would love a game where you play as a woman, I would love anything that isn't what was shown yesterday. Microsoft has made it clear that they are wanting to cater to the garbage masses, the people who loved the unoriginal slop they showed yesterday.

Lester Lee I'm not an xbox fanboy or anything by any stretch of the means, in fact I'm for sure getting a ps4 at this point on launch instead, but there are a number of games that were interesting that didn't have Marcus "In your face on steroids" Fenix stereotypes. Project Spark for one, Dragon Age III for another (nice Morrigan Tease in that), Sunset Overdrive was quirky and looked hilarious, and the indie game Below looks amazing. None of these had stereotypical mercenary war heroes for main characters.

Elizabeth Ludwig I must plead ignorance about the conference yesterday, I didn’t watch. So I’m going to stick to the broader issue. (Time for my essay!) I often run across the same argument when I critique any industry (film, tv, video games, magazines, etc) for being sexist: “It’s just about making money! They aren’t TRYING to be sexist, it’s just capitalism!” and I have a big problem with that way of thinking. I know it’s true. I’m well aware that industry exists to make money. That is a fact, of course. But I have a problem with the assumptions that come with that argument in the context of sexism. The assumptions are that games with female protagonists won’t sell well, because men won’t buy them (upholding the sexist belief that men are the default in our society and are “relatable” to women, whereas women are not relatable to men because they are “other” – same with race (default white), sexuality (default straight), etc). Or the assumption is that women aren’t interested in video games and won’t buy them (clearly not true). Or that women who are gamers are happy to just play as men and therefore no need (see point one). Now, statistically, all of those sexist assumptions may be factually accurate. I play lots of video games that I enjoy with male protagonists. There are lots of women who aren’t interested in video games, period. But my problem is that industry takes these facts as if they are inherent in women, rather than a symptom of the precedent they’ve created. I enjoy video games and I play lots of games with male protagonists because I have no choice. I roll my eyes at the sexism I encounter within them and keep playing because otherwise I don’t get to play, period. Same with female developers, I’m sure. They want to be in the industry because they are passionate about it and putting up with sexism is the price they pay. STORY OF MY LIFE. Remember when I used to do comedy?! So pointing out “but there are women in the industry” and “there are women playing video games” doesn’t negate the sexism that is occurring within it.
My other problem with the making money argument is that it negates your separation of developers/publishers from gamers themselves. If the companies are trying to make money, they’re selling to the very people who are attacking Anita. I have a very hard time separating the two when one profits so massively off of the other. I want to make it clear that I am not talking about individual developers or companies – it’s the culture of the industry. The same way that “patriarchy” does not mean “individual men” – you can point out individual examples of people who are doing the right thing (and I love hearing about that! Yes there is progress! That’s great!), but that doesn’t change the fact that the culture overall is very toxic, or shit like what’s happening in this post just wouldn’t be happening.
Progress is happening. That’s great. But “Things are better than they were 10/20/30 years ago” to me is a given and doesn’t need to be said. And insisting that we acknowledge that is kind of distracting from the work towards equality that needs to be done- and also implies that we should be grateful somehow. I’m not grateful for progress being made towards me being treated like an equal human being in all aspects of society. That’s just how it fucking should be. And “dudes don’t like chick protagonists” is just lazy business.
Yesterday at 12:31 · Like

Lester Lee See and I don't think that games with female protagonists won't sell well. We've already refuted that argument in many ways, Portal is an excellent example of this. Chell is a great strong female character, albeit pretty quiet, but GladOS provides an amazing female antagonist foil for her. Zoey is a great female character as well, though that's more of an ensemble game. Elizabeth is deep and fantastic as a female lead (Bioshock Infinite), in fact I just bought Remember Me, and Nilin is an amazing, complex and well-crafted/voiced female lead.

The actual issue is that in publisher minds, games "for" women don't sell well. And I can actually explain how that thinking came about. Somewhere in the mid nineties, an enterprising developer worked with Mattel to make a Barbie game. It's not a great example, but it was a) a well made game, and b) featured an IP that people understood and already knew. The game made money hand over fist. Somewhere back in the history of this game, the publisher thought "We're onto a gold mine!" and thought that making games for girls, with lots of pink, and costume jewelry and whatever else would be a ticket to print money. Publishers saw them doing this, cashed in on it and produced a huge stack of terrible games for girls. Low and behold, they ALL tanked, not because they were for girls, but because they were terrible games. Their producers and designers didn't understand the demographic well, they didn't execute good games, and the market was oversaturated with these games.

Well they all tanked, all those publishers lost millions of dollars on their investitures, and in the industry we generally recognize the fact that Barbie killed that market. Even though it didn't. It's weird to think now, but the fact that so many publishers and developers died in that moment has made the industry understandably terrified of making games 'for' girls. Are the right to be doing that? Nope. But for an accountant who crunches books, mitigating risk is just a part of their jobs. They probably don't even care WHAT the content of the game is, just knowing the target demographic has historically not done well they won't take a chance. This happens all the time sadly not just about male/female demographics in games. In fact just recently we were told that EA shuttered a department in its own Vancouver Studio. The studio was responsible for making "Find the difference in the two image" type games, it employed all of 6 people, cost the company maybe 200,000 dollars a year, and made around 2 million in profit a year. 10x the profit. But because in the books it only made 2 million profit, it was deemed to be 'under-performing' and shuttered. That's ridiculous, but those are the people we deal with. They don't understand games, the bottom line is all they care about.

This isn't as true today anymore, there are many games which are throwing off these shackles, giving opportunities of choice, or telling female stories. In fact the thesis game I'm designing right now features a female lead. The progress of our industry does mean something, because I honestly think it would be too much to expect that overnight we suddenly turn around and everything changes.

The other point I want to raise is that I'm not sure if attacking the nebulous idea of the 'industry' is very useful. I think it should be personal, it should be pointed, at developers and publishers by name. Like what you did just above with the XboxOne rape joke, we shouldn't just say that's symptomatic of the industry, but instead call that producer out, find out his name and ask why he did that, ask for an apology. I generally dislike Jezebel because of the engendered tone of the writing. When I read that article it reads as though "The Man, because of course it was a man, only a man would find this funny, and only a man could be so insensitive, and only a man..." Well this man, right here writing this article is just as offended by that rape joke.

I don't really know what I wrote there...I blame having written this while in class.

Elizabeth Ludwig No one expects the industry to change overnight. We just aren't satisfied with the status quo, and many seem to think we should be, because "hey look there are some women in the industry and some female protagonists in games, like, we let you have a few SO BACK OFF" I'm afraid I've lost your point in all of this. Anita is a feminist critic who is pointing out inequality that persists in a particular sector, and your argument against her is "but we've made progress and that should be acknowledged." And I just don't see the point of that. I go back to my original stance that companies that make millions peddling sexism and have for years don't get a cookie for doing a few things right while they still profit off of said sexism. And I don't see the problem in pointing out that sexism. What's the damage here? What is the harm in what she has to say?

Lester Lee I guess what it is, is that I don't have an issue, now that I've typed it out. I've realized that I'm not the demographic she's attacking, where at one point I felt like she was attacking both my sex, and more importantly my self-stylization as a gamer. I think I felt a need to 'defend' myself from her assertion that male gamers are all horrible people, but I'm coming to realize that it isn't her assertion (or at least I hope it isn't).

I don't know that I ever think people should 'back off' about telling stories through the lens of masculinity/femninty or race or gender or any other demographic that is underrepresented. But I do yearn for a day when I won't have to defend my choice for making a game with a female lead, and instead be able to say to a pitch room "This is what it is, any questions?"

Mike Robertson I assert that MOST male gamers are horrible sub-humans. We need to assemble our XBOXes into a single mobile assault unit and take down the feminazi horde, who are guilty of the crime of "wanting equality" (and also for constantly friend-zoning us).

Elizabeth Ludwig I think that’s where these conversations tend to go south, feeling the need to defend. I get it, you love something, you don’t want it to be attacked! You want to distance yourself from the idiots who ruin it for everyone! Totally. And that isn’t her assertion at all, she’s just trying to expose the very real sexism in both the games themselves (in her videos) and in the reaction she gets to daring to be a woman with an opinion about video games (in this tweet and in many, many other forums). I think this conversation is very similar to the “sexism in comedy” discussion because comedians get SUPER defensive at feminist critiques because they feel attacked personally, or like they’re being censored – and that’s just not true. You can love something very deeply and be aware of its flaws! (that goes for humans too).
And I really like what you had to say at the end because I started playing Skyrim a little while ago (I know super late to the party, I am not a hardcore gamer). I’m not very far into the game at all, I’ve only played for a few hours, so maybe there’s a bunch of sexist shit that happens later that I’m not aware of – but I was struck very quickly at the gender equality in the game. There were tons of men and women in every class of character in that world. There were women fighters in equal numbers to the men, and they were all just hanging out and travelling together – LIKE IT WAS NO BIG DEAL (not like, oh look there’s one special lady with magic powers so she gets to come on this journey with the men). There are female blacksmiths in the towns, etc. AND IT WAS NORMAL. I was so impressed. And then I was depressed at the fact that I was impressed, because I was like, “this should not be extraordinary.” What I’m striving for is a day when gender equality is just taken for granted. Looks like we want the same thing. But we’ll never get there if no one points out the inequality.

Lester Lee Yeah Bethesda, the company that does Skyrim and Fallout have a great track record for that. They tackle some great mature issues in their games from a very equal perspective.

Also I want to fix Mike's assertion: the most VOCAL male gamers are horrible sub humans.