On women’s representation in gaming

Before you read this post, please read that one first. Please. I’ll repeat the main point here in case you don’t: this article isn’t about ethics in video game journalism, and it isn’t about Gamergate. Gamergaters I’ve come across have consistently told me the movement was *not* about women. Well friends, I’m taking you at your word: this doesn’t interest you. I have other articles on those topics that do.

It’s really quite simple, and fairly easy to understand: games have been targeted at an exceedingly young white male audience, and the representation of women in them has been lacking at best, and insulting at worst. Some might disagree with the “at worst” part, but I don’t think many will disagree with the “at best” one. The only disagreement there would be about the reasons, explanations and justifications for that “lacking” representation. For most people though, it is likely linked to the fact that games are created almost exclusively by men. That much is difficult to dispute.

For my part, I tend to think of the result as insulting and embarrassing. Not as a feminist, but as a human being, who also happens to consider women to be human beings. I don’t agree with everything Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu and others are saying, but only because I don’t think anyone ever agrees 100% with anyone else when discussing a complex topic. You can only fully agree with someone if they’ve simplified the discussion to the point that it looses its meaning. So I don’t agree with everything. But I agree with most things.

I can summarize it this way: in 20 or 30 years, when we look back at the games we were creating and playing, we’ll be embarrassed for how they “treat” women. The same way that we are embarrassed today when we look at how films or TV presented people of color only a few decades ago. Those seemed “reasonable” at the time, too.

That’s my view on it. I want to be unequivocal so I’ll repeat it: I think there is a problem with women’s representation in games.

I also want to say this: it is an important issue, and at the very least one worth discussing. Not shouting over, but talking about. We can argue about it, we can disagree about it, but the discussion should happen. And if you want to look at an excellent example of how this important topic is being addressed in a calm and analytically “it’s good to have a discussion about this” way, go no further than the famed “tropes vs women in video games” series. We can disagree with the almost academical material that is presented, but in my humble opinion, it certainly does not feel like it is or requires anything violent. If we can’t even have discussions like those, then we have a problem.

All right; now that I’ve set the stage…

Talking about this in reasonable discussion, I usually see three main issues and misconception that I want to address:

1) But the kidnapped princess makes sense, cause that’s the story! But the beat up hooker makes sense in that world!

A lot of people look at a game, and conclude that the female characters make sense in the context of that story/world/time period/culture. And they’re right: sexy/plot device female character are fine.

The problem isn’t that there are sexy women in games; the problem is that this is basically all we have.

Some people say that male characters are also overly sexualized in games. First of all, not in the same way. Second of all, so much less. And third of all, they still occupy most of the space, and are usually the heroes or prominent characters.

And how could it be different, when most of the video game developer industry is male, and crushingly so? If anything, I think we can agree that the video game industry makeup is heavily slanted towards male employees. Isn’t it only natural that it has consequences and brings some form of bias?

2) But we love our games the way they are!

Our games, the way they are, aren’t going away. Well, maybe they’ll have to change a bit, but only in the way that we stopped portraying black people in films by using white actors with black paint on their faces and red paint on their lips at some point.

Bro games aren’t going away just because games with other narratives and characters should be added to the mix. Video games are our newest art form, and they are expanding, becoming ubiquitous. In the same way that traditional fantasy or sci-fi didn’t go away when bit lit and teen heroin young adult novels started invading book stores. Young white males as a target audience for games isn’t going anywhere, and they will always be taken into account by developers. Maybe we’ll have more bro games with female leads. Maybe we’ll have more different kinds of games too. But the games that we have today will still be here tomorrow too.

This isn’t a zero sum game. Not only can everyone enjoy an awesome game with a female lead, but also not every game has to suddenly become that. Nobody has ever argued for that, and if you think they have, you are ill informed. Super-bro-clearly-heterosexual-army-dude FPS explosionfest will still be around. We’ll just have other things as well.

3) Hey, video games are supposed to be escapism in a box! I don’t want them to be realistic!

This issue isn’t about realism. It never was. You don’t have to be realistic to be inclusive.

In conclusion, I want to say, again, that there is really nothing inflammatory or outrageous in the initial discussion. As an industry, we’re realizing we’ve veered to something of an extreme over the course of our (young) media’s life. We’re recognizing it, and we’re hopefully taking steps to fix it. How? Probably by making an effort to have more women in dev teams, and making sure we pay attention to the females in our games. Doesn’t sound super outrageous to me. And the industry will be better for it. But forget about that: the games will be better for it. It is, as I said in the beginning, quite simple.

So if there is only one thing to remember from all of this, I would like you to ask yourself this question:

Is it really an issue if the bad ass princess rescues the plumber every once in a while? As long as we have kick-as gameplay and cool game mechanics? Of course it isn’t. An awesome game is an awesome game, and if me playing the princess more often than I do now makes half the world feel more included, then I’m not only happy to do so, I call for it and welcome it with all my heart.

PS: And by the way, in my book, being a gamer means loving video games, and also feeling an immediate kinship with others who love video games. We have enough rejection levied against us in he past; we should do all we can to make our gamer brothers and sisters feel more at home in our warm and welcoming family. Playing a chick is fine with me.

October 30th, 2014