revanchist: eve from wall-e looking happy (Default)
the emperor of ice-cream ([personal profile] revanchist) wrote2010-07-27 08:37 pm

Sex & Gender Roles in Modern Video Games [1]

Alright, so, this is a post about, well, what the title says. But I'm hoping it can have cross-media implications, and possibly to open discussion about these issues. Because I want to be educated, and I want that discussion.

Backstory: I recently got embroiled in one of many ongoing debates over at the Bioware forums in regards to the upcoming game Dragon Age 2, which began when a poster asked a relatively simple question over whether any promotional materials would be released showcasing a female protagonist. This spawned a debate of several (thirty-three) pages, which attracted comments from a moderator and the lead writer on the game (which is common on the forums, surprisingly).

To summarize, the OP wanted to know if any other women were put off by the company's continual use of a male protagonist in their marketing, to the point where both Mass Effect games had been marketed as if there was no female option, and was wondering if this would be the case with DA:2, as the (so far) released materials seem to be following the same course. As the game was only announced a few weeks ago, OP wanted to give input so that this could be subverted before it happened. OP went on to say, "I feel that Bio-Ware could use a female protagonist that both males and females would love to relate to, and watch in trailers and advertisements for the games." The arguments commenced, and ranged from intelligent discourse to downright infuriating. And yeah, I dove in headfirst.

Quick and dirty for those who aren't in the fandom: Bioware has released several very popular RPG games in the past, including KOTOR, a Star Wars cult classic; Mass Effect, a futuristic space TPS (third person shooter) trilogy; and Dragon Age: Origins, a return to fantasy gaming's D&D roots. There are more: it would not be incorrect to say that the company has a solid history of releasing cult classics with excellent plotting and character building. They are remarkable not only for the quality of their output as far as RPG gaming goes, but for always including the choice to play as a female with a unique gaming experience. They've done their best not only to level the playing field with equitable romance options and general gameplay and roleplaying features, but also to incorporate alternate sexualities, etc. (There's a whole 'nother issue there, which I shall not get deep into in this post, simply because it's opening up a can of worms. They try hard, often attracting the ire and scandal that go along with, gasp, space lesbians and bisexual elves-- but they sometimes fail miserably at getting it right simply by backtracking under critique and succumbing to general misconceptions, etc.)

(I am not going to get into female representation in more than an 'does it exist' level, so do not expect me to delve into natural bodies, armor that doesn't cover the fleshy bits, one dimensional personalities, etcetera. One thing at a time, no?)

But I will freely admit that Bioware has been on the forefront in this issue, such as it is. So I do not want to demonize them, or say that they've done nothing to advance the experience of female gamers, because they definitely have. Any girl who has played RPGs and TPSs extensively will probably acknowledge this. Bioware is on the forefront of game companies in this regard.

And I will acknowledge, straight away, two more things:
1. Games of this sort have a primarily male audience. Males, aged teens to twenties, are the primary demographic. Unlike many other media forms, women are the minority: truth is, we simply do not make up 50% of players, nor any statistic close to that.
2. Marketing often is responsible for putting one, instantly recognizable 'face' to a game, and releasing images/trailers/materials with six different faces could theoretically be confusing and hurt sales.

I get it, I do. But I still am asking that some promotional materials feature women, and I am not the only one. Here's why:

To be perfectly honest, this is part of a much larger problem which encompasses society as a whole. It's the reason the protagonist pictured on the box is unfailingly always going to be white, as well as male, but that, too, is an issue for another time. But we should be doing everything possible to change the current status quo, which means speaking up as opposed to quietly going along with it. Discussion raises awareness, which hopefully in turn will cause action. I think visibility is very important when it comes to changing perceptions. If a thing cannot be ignored, well, then you actually have to think and do something about it.

Now, to backtrack a bit, I personally want to see some marketing efforts put towards releasing a screenshot or two of a female version of the protagonist, possibly a piece of concept art, since equal representation and visibility in the marketing of video games is pretty much considered null chance. (Protag for DA:2 will hereby be referred to as Hawke, and protag for ME is Shepard, to clear up confusion.) As one poster put it:

I am not thrilled by the fact that an "iconic" Hawke was chosen, who happens to be male, but I can accept it. What I really, really am concerned about is that the last game Bioware marketed, Mass Effect 2, completely erased Female Shepard from any screenshots, trailers or art, until a few days before the game's launch. I don't want to see this repeated with DA2. If anyone is wondering *why* I want to see screenshots or trailers of FemHawke, I would ask, why should Bioware *not* show off a female version of the hero? What is gained by alienating those who primarily play female characters? (p.8)

And I think this poster brought up good points. I would add that even if women made up a scant 10% of the gamers, it would still make sense that one or two screenshots be catered exclusively to them-- far less than 10% of promotional material. To go back to Mass Effect, and quote another poster or two:

I mean, ME2's packaging made NO MENTION whatsoever of the fact that Commander Shepard didn't have to be the dude on the box. Not one. How is that not shooting themselves in the foot? (p.22)

Male driven industry = male driven marketing" is kind of a self-fullfilling prophecy, no? I mean, why ever increase your female clientle by actually marketing to them? (p.12)

Now, I would like to go into my response to this thread/issue. So here's what I jumped in with, somewhat edited for length:

I think it goes towards expressing the frustration that is common to women or other minorities facing this kind of issue. Personally, I do not believe the devs are doing this intentionally, so to speak (though they are ultimately still responsible for their actions). As I said earlier, it's part of a larger problem, which is common perception of female characters versus male characters. And I believe that it would be relatively easy for the devs to release one or two screenshots of a non-white female Hawke, which could go a long way towards combating the invisibility fans feel when they are not represented.

Otherwise it is easy to feel that you are not 'good' enough to be a Warden/Hawke/Hero/Etc. That somehow, women/ minorities/ GLBT cannot be heroes, cannot be strong self-assured characters who kick ass, save the world, and look good doing it. Or simply, that the majority of gamers do not want to be represented as a woman or as a minority or as a homosexual, because there is something intrinsically wrong or uncool or weak or whatever in being in one of these categories. That it is vastly preferable to be white, straight, and most importantly, male.

THIS is what we have a problem with. (p.10)

Now, one of the devs, who happens to be a lead writer on the game, responded as such to my post, and I will quote the entire thing:

I'm trying to picture what a single character would look like which would be politically neutral enough to be representative of everyone playing the game, appeasing those who feel the character should be female yet also attractive enough without being exploitive to appeal to the male audience and of a race that doesn't make anyone feel left out. It's not easy.

Not that I think there isn't a point here-- certainly these things deserve to be considered, as the issue of privilege is a touchy one (I think I just used that word in the same-sex romance thread... I have to be hitting my limit by now) but at some point trying to construct a character based primarily on minority profiling seems a bit futile to me. I don't doubt some amount of marketing went into the image you see-- they wanted a single recognizeable 'face' that a player could identify with-- but I also suspect that the largest part is simply that the artists wanted to create someone they thought was cool.

A femHawke would be nice to see, though, and I doubt there's any harm in asking for one. (p.10)

First thing, full props to a dev for diving right into this and other sensitive issues. As one poster put it:

I'd just like to say that I really appreciate how willing you are to comment on issues that are touchy, David, you're a beacon for transparency and communication in an industry that tends to be wary of both. (p.11)

Now that I've shown the whole thing and avoided taking words out of context, I want to highlight one part of this: I don't doubt some amount of marketing went into the image you see-- they wanted a single recognizeable 'face' that a player could identify with-- but I also suspect that the largest part is simply that the artists wanted to create someone they thought was cool. I feel as though the reasoning is flawed, for the same things I pointed out above.

The artists always 'create someone they think is cool' who a 'player can identify with', and that face has always, traditionally, been male.

Not only that, but any attempts to request or advocate for a few, paltry offerings (aka a few screenshots or pieces of concept art) are not met with the open-mindedness one would hope for. This is a pervasive problem in gaming today, and one thing that was quickly evidenced on the board was how quickly (male) gamers were to jump to accusations, and to act as if some sort of trespass or encroachment had occurred upon a territory which was somehow theirs. Here is one that jumped out at me:

Sensationalism, this is what this thread is all about. I can't really believe you're bothered by just a few pictures of a male warrior. (p.10)

I will quote my response with original emphasis (sorry for all the self-references!):

The heart of the issue is not that we are bothered by the pictures of the male warrior, nor that we are trying to encroach upon male representation. What bothers me, at least, is the omission, the lack of a female counterpart. It is the empty space which I find dissuading. We are not asking that the man on the advertising be replaced with a woman, but that he be joined by a woman. (p.10)

A forum mod responded:

I see what you mean, but it creates a more concrete image by having a single face of a game, rather than two halves. (p.10)

As you can probably tell, the conversation went in circles for a bit, and then devolved into a debate (and I use the term loosely) over feminism.

Now, of course many of the arguments used against will sound very familiar, including women being told not to ask so vehemently, and also asked why they weren't as angry over the lack of, say, mages in marketing materials, as you can play as a mage or a warrior but the marketing only shows warriors. One brilliant response to that one:

Mages aren't an underrepresented minority. No one is going to identify with them. There isn't an apostate sitting behind his computer feeling left out. (p.22)

Another complaint was that in a world based in a medieval-like fantasy setting, women were not as historically relevant. To which I would (and did) reply that the keyword is fantasy, and why is it stranger to be a dominant woman than to cast spells that light your enemies on fire? Why do we accept the existence of mages more easily than equality in our fantasy worlds?

Here are some more responses by posters. I admit I am mostly representing the pro-female marketing contingent, but TBH that is what I am interested in.

And, no matter how politely we bring the issue up, we're bound to get shouted down, condescendingly told it's not important and/or targeted by sexist comments. I see it happen all the time (not only with women's issues either, and not only on 'minor' issues). And then people wonder why we feel angry. (p.11)

I think this is part of why I'm so frustrated ... I've been looking at my posts earlier in the thread because apparently some people took offense to them, but I tried my absolute best to be polite and respectful and reasonable, if firm. It seems -- and I'm not making accusations here or pointing to one particular person -- that a lot of the times, the ugliness in these discussions tend to come from people annoyed that they're happening in the first place, thinking that it's a nonissue. (p.11)

We ran into the feminists are against men, etcetera arguments, comparing feminism to the swastika, stating feminism was sexist/outdated/what-have-you, and all hope was lost and the thread was later locked by a mod. But here is my response, for my own records. Feel free to skip ahead:

Okay, how best to put this without offending anyone. The ability to see feminism as outdated is a privilege, one that comes of never having been treated as an inferior due to your sex. (Both men and women can have this privilege, though obviously it is more common to men.) It is easy to stand in a position of relative privilege and scorn those who do not have that privilege because, well, you've never seen women treated as inferior and you've never treated a woman differently than a man, so sexual discrimination must not be widespread in the Western world.

This is a fallacy. And it results from a certain innocence, I believe, which we cannot fault you for... but simply try to educate you.

However, the reason people in this thread are getting angry is because some of us have dealt with sexism, at differing levels of severity, throughout most of our lives. And it hurts to see you disregard our experiences and our voices, because guess what? That's generally how it begins. (I am reminded of the Mass Effect council... 'Ah, yes, 'sexism'.... we have dismissed that claim.' ;)

For some of us, feminism is a very real and very important force for combatting the dismissals and insults that we have experienced. And yes, we are looking for equality, not dominance.

And in this case, we're looking for a few measly screencaps. And instead, some posters (not you specifically, poster, but looking back at this thread) have decided that no, this is cause not only to dismiss a polite request but also to begin bashing those fighting for equality throughout the world. (p.30)

I think you and I disagree on one thing in particular. You see feminism as a mutually exclusive vision, that cannot coexist with a general strive towards equality. This is incorrect. Feminism is a belief practiced by many people. Many of those people also believe in equal rights for racial minorities, GLBT individuals, the disabled, etcetera. The quest for universal equality is all-encompassing, and different people are free to take from it what they will. Feminism is the struggle for equality of the sexes. Had we lived in a woman-dominated world, it would be called Man-ism or something similar. However, the truth is that our world has been male dominated for centuries, and so those advocating for equality were seeking to gain the right to vote for women as men already had it. And in many countries world-wide, women still do not have this right, while there is not a single country where women may vote and men cannot. So feminism remains relevant. (p.31)

But to get back on topic. I later brought this up with an RL friend over Facebook chat, and here is what she had to say. Edited for grammar:

I'm a bit ambiguous about womens roles in games. I worry that they may go to far in their portrayal and stereotype women in general as opposed to the women in gaming ideal that already occurs. The occuring ideal is obnoxious - but livable and clearly antiquated- any new sterotype would be worse because it proves we haven't progressed at all.

To your GBLT point: how many games offer themes mature enough to actually bring up the topic without including it? I know in both Dragon Age and Fable II being bi or lesbian was an option- no one seemed to mind in Fable II. Does it then not come up because it is commonplace in the game or because they are avoiding the topic? I'm not entirely sure which it is. Many games are based off antiquity and goodness knows Rome had plenty of M/M going on; some of the most famous greek poetry is Sapho; Spartan men were notorious.

I don't think a screenshot of a woman or minority would hurt any, especially the female part. It is generally assumed that you will have the option to customize your characters appearance, but the ability to have a female character is much rarer.

I have a lot of questions, and I've tried to copy over all of the things that really stuck with me. I understand that I'm probably not being as coherent as I might have wished, but I'm confused and frustrated and I need some place to put my thoughts together. I agree, it's impossible to represent everyone in the marketing. We live in a world of infinite possibilities, and any programmer will tell you that some things cannot be computed. But I think it's important to try. Sometimes putting in the effort is equally important, and Bioware goes a long way towards putting in the effort.

However, it's not something that's ever over. It's a continual struggle towards representation, not just in this game but in every facet of some people's lives. When you're hitting a glass ceiling at work, or being called names in the street, you don't want to encounter that in your fantasy world, which is something of a safe space where you are the hero. So people get frustrated at not being represented because it's something they deal with on a daily basis. It's bigger than this, in a way, and so long as that doesn't get lost, as long as it gets considered, I think we're moving in the right direction.

edit august first: html fixes for readability.
the_baroness: (Default)

[personal profile] the_baroness 2010-07-31 08:39 pm (UTC)(link)
I know what male privilege is, lol, I'm well-versed in feminism 101 thank you very much

Great for you, but there's no need to get defensive. I fully understood what you were saying, but you didn't mention male privilege by name, so I thought I'd throw that term out there, knowing you'd make the connection between that and what you'd already written.

[identity profile] 2010-07-31 08:53 pm (UTC)(link)
Fair enough, but going on to define the term as if I were not only unaware of it but also incapable of putting two and two together myself was a bit much, methinks. I wasn't trying to be hostile, but your comment did strike me as somewhat condescending.
the_baroness: (Default)

[personal profile] the_baroness 2010-07-31 09:42 pm (UTC)(link)
My (obviously incorrect) interpretation of your original post was that you possibly had never heard of the term, so I threw it out just as an FYI. If I offended you, I'm honestly sorry, but I really did not expect such hostility from such a simple comment.