Hi everyone! I'd like to take a minute to talk about equality and representation in video games from what I hope is a novel kind of angle. Ever since #GamerGate
happened last year, I've been thinking a lot about the issues raised by some participants in the discussion regarding gender and minority representation in games, why it matters, how to address it, and so on. However, I found that in the highly charged atmosphere surrounding #GamerGate
, it was difficult to discuss these things without it becoming a shouting match, in both directions I must confess; because even though equality of representation was only ever ancillary to the wider #GamerGate
discussion, it did unfortunately get caught up in this particular storm-in-a-teacup. Now that the hysteria is mostly over in the mainstream media, and #GamerGate
has won pretty much by default (by virtue of its opponents failing to change the status quo where it mattered to them), I think it should be possible to talk about equality issues more fairly.
I should also admit ahead of time that I don't consider myself to be any kind of feminist, but rather an egalitarian. "Feminism" means many things, one of which is the (in my opinion) morally bankrupt movement of Third-Wave Feminism. So, regardless of the possible merits of other flavors of feminism (some of which I do agree with), I think that it's too messy to identify with in any way, and I think that egalitarianism will suffice as a basis for building the rest of this discussion on.
First off, regardless of my opinions on the opposition to #GamerGate
, the representation of women in video games has actually bothered me for quite a while. It always irritated me that women were commonly depicted as sex objects and little to nothing else in many video games. And, in fact, as time went on I was glad to see more and more positive portrayals of women in video games in general - from being selectable characters in RPGs (without forcing you to dress them like streetwalkers) to being fully realized characters, both as participants and protagonists in video game stories. Even though I never attached much importance to the story or narrative of video games other than as a framework in which to justify and remember character motivations (and hence, in-game objectives), it was still nice to have a greater diversity of perspectives than "faceless commander" and "muscle-bound gun-toting slab of meat." It made for more replayability, for one thing, and especially on my budget I can appreciate that.
But right there is the first major problem with the current generation of gaming's gender representivity warriors: they are too late. Far, far too late. I can understand being somewhat taken aback by gender representation in games in the 1990s or even the early 2000s, when games were taken less seriously as a storytelling medium, but as gaming has matured, so also has the diversity of its stories increased, and hence the diversity of the characters in those stories.
Of the games that I have played during the current century, I can think of only a handful with arguably over-sexualized female characters, and these games were Diablo 2 as well as Sacred 1 and 2, which encouraged you to equip female characters with scant clothing and armor types to the point that I would alter my character "build" (the kind of role that a character plays on the battlefield) to be able to use the most modest type of armor available at any given time. There were also a few games with deliberately campy plots (such as Command & Conquer: Renegade) which sexualized one or two of the characters, but they did that to some of the male characters also, so that's probably irrelevant.
On the other hand, we have seen increasing numbers of positive portrayals of women in games. I'm somewhat of an atypical gamer in terms of what I play, so I'm going to list only a few, but those that have creatively influenced me the most are protagonists such as Faith in Mirror's Edge, the female incarnation of Shepard in Mass Effect, and the female Revan in Knights of the Old Republic. Conversely, off the top of my head I can't think of a single male protagonist in gaming that I particularly like, except perhaps for Tails from the Sonic games because as a kid I was usually Player 2.
The other facet to this crystal is the culture surrounding online gaming, and online interactions in general, all of which are populated heavily by trollish boys just entering puberty. However, that's completely irrelevant to any discussions on game development (as it says on the box: "online interactions are not rated by the ESRB"). Perhaps it would be more legitimate to have a discussion on the culture of large multiplayer games, but since I mostly play alone, with real-life friends, or with hand-picked online acquaintances rather than with random strangers on the internet, I will not presume to comment on that here.
All of this has left me scratching my head and wondering what the extremist feminist gaming commentators want to see happen in gaming that is not already happening. Positive portrayals of women in games are everywhere. Many games go out of their way to deliver little nuggets of feminist nonsense for no discernible reason: for instance, the game XCOM: Enemy Unknown offered me an achievement (a minor reward) for composing a team of alien-fighting soldiers consisting entirely of women, even though there is functionally no difference between men and women within the game itself, and even though which gender a newly recruited soldier turns out to be is completely and entirely random (as well as totally meaningless in terms of their usefulness in battle). Even the dreaded online modern military shooters, which are populated heavily by trollish twelve-year-old boys and which supposedly represent modern military encounters "realistically" (he said, with massive air quotes, while laughing in derision), allow you to select a female soldier which is equally physically adept at soldiering as her male counterparts... even though this leads to mixed units with women doing heavy lifting, which if you're keeping score at home, is a complete fantasy in real life, even in inclusive armies which assign women to combat roles.
The main problem here, then, is that feminist ideologues are left with no battle to fight except the one that they have conjured from their imaginations. Are some gamers misogynist? Absolutely, as are many human beings in any society (as well as, in my opinion, all Third-Wave Feminists). Does that represent a problem with gamers in general, and with gaming itself as an industry? Hell no. What I see is a bunch of ideologues upset that gaming as a medium does not kowtow to their every whim, and demanding that other people change their preferences and their creative output in order to serve an ideology that they are not a part of. Instead of, you know, developing games themselves and supporting them through the free market.
And lest you think that I have no right to an opinion on this sort of thing, since I am a "racially privileged heterosexual cis-gendered male" (to use feminist newspeak for "white bloke"), I too have issues that I could harp on about if I so desired. Since being male, though not insignificant, is not a core part of my personal identity, let's look at other things that are more important to me.
How about the fact that very few video games allow you to play as an African, of any race? One of my favorite games of all time is Far Cry 2, but the only black person that you can play as is from Haiti, and the only African you can play as is Mauritian. On the other hand, throughout the game you spend most of your time butchering South African mercenaries, who are either Afrikaans or Zulu. Basically I spend the entire game as a foreign mercenary (a class of people who do not have the greatest reputation on this continent) butchering people with whom I associate my very identity, as a South African in general and an Afrikaner in particular. However, since I don't view the world through the glasses of the oppression-seeking social justice warriors, and I understand the difference between fantasy and reality, the only effect that these attributes of the game had on me was to allow me to understand the directions that the enemy troops were shouting at each other when they were not speaking English (and these, to the credit of the game developers and to my surprise and delight, were surprisingly accurate), and thus conferred a small tactical advantage. I did not allow myself to be fundamentally traumatized by a work of fiction, because I am not an idiot.
Here's another of my favorite games: the original Assassin's Creed. (I'm Christian.) Essentially, in the first game of the series, you are a trained killer who sneaks through the Holy Land during the Crusades, killing everyone who looks vaguely like a Crusader. There are more complex reasons behind the story, in which it turns out that the people you are fighting against are atheists who are merely exploiting the people through religion while seeking world domination while you seek to free them through freethinking platitudes and lots and lots of murder. So eventually you discover that the protagonists and antagonists are atheists, and religious people are merely the stupid cattle whom they herd. But that doesn't change the fact that the game is a massive apologia for modern individualist pop-atheism, and the villains are obvious stand-ins for religious institutions (and mostly in control of the actual Roman Catholic Church, which ironically is the institution mainly responsible for the negative public opinion of the Knights Templar which the game espouses). The only major, somewhat positively portrayed, sincere Christian character in the game is Richard the Lion-Hearted, and he is made to seem somewhat superstitious and not terribly bright. I could waste everyone's time yelling "persecution" at the top of my lungs to anyone who would listen, but again, not being an idiot, I simply enjoyed the game for what it was and continued with my life. This, despite the fact that off the top of my head I can think of zero unequivocally positively-portrayed, explicitly Christian characters in gaming, whereas I can think of very many positively-portrayed, explicitly atheist characters in gaming, one of whom is the protagonist of the above-mentioned Assassin's Creed.
I could go on with how Africans (and especially the white ones) are commonly portrayed in movies, as well as the historical origins of the musical genre of heavy metal (of which I am a fan), but that's a bit of a sidetrack and I think the general point is made. The take-home message here is this: if you enjoy a thing such as gaming, but that thing does not reflect your own personal values, then get up and do something about it. Either contribute creatively, or if that is outside of your skill-set and you're not able or interested in learning to contribute, then just commercially support the products that you appreciate ideologically, if ideology is that important to you in terms of the media that you consume. But don't play the victim and attempt to force other people to either produce a product that they are not inspired to produce, or your fellow consumers to attach meanings to products that you have arbitrarily decided to assign to them and adopt consumer patterns and behaviors that you personally approve of, on pain of being collectively called the most heinous of names and publicly vilified and character-assassinated in the press. It tends not to go well, not to achieve your goals, and entrenching your opponents in their opposition. Instead you have the options of either contributing positively and letting your work speak for itself, or of shutting up and going home. I vastly prefer the former, as I appreciate diversity of opinion, but I will settle for the latter if you're going to be determined to be impossible about this.
Thanks for your attention, and sorry this got to be so long, but that's the rambling summary of my thoughts on this general topic, and even if nobody reads this, hopefully it will suffice in terms of freeing me to think about other things and get my creativity back on track.