One of the most persistent memories I have about playing GTA V is the constant reinforcement from the game that I did not belong in that world.
It is the small things, really, stacking up to become a mountain of rejection. It is the voice on the radio, talking about women as if they were trash or objects to be used. It is the poking (not so) fun at feminist women, painting them as new age-y man haters. It’s the more obvious catering to cis-hetero men, using women as objects in the strip clubs, and the women welcoming it, as long as you pay for them. It’s the introduction to the vilest of the three characters, Trevor, as he has sex with a woman, presumably as some form of payment or bribe.
All of it adds up to a pretty clear message “you’re not welcome here.” The same can be said for the Witcher, a game where the player gets pin-up trading cards of women Geralt has slept with. Or maybe Mafia II, where you get to collect Playboy magazines and pin ups.
The reminders are there, constant, persistent, niggling at the back of my mind, telling me, constantly, that this world was not built for me.
Perhaps, you’ll say, this is proof of how thin skinned I am. Perhaps it shows I’m not a “real” gamer. Or perhaps it points a finger at how very ingrained cis-hetero male privileges are in the world of gaming and the construction of games.
That is why one of the things I dearly appreciate with Dragon Age Inquisition are the subtle hints that this game is not business as usual.
Three of my closest advisers, Cassandra, Leliana, and Josephine, are capable women without becoming men with boobs. Cassandra is a closet romantic. Josephine loves frilly underwear, and Leliana’s pet Schmooples has been adopted by a family she has close ties with. At the same time, Cassandra is the Right Hand of the Divine after having saved the previous Divine from a conspiracy of Blood Mages. Josephine is an accomplished diplomat and the head of her house, a trading family. Leliana is not only the Left Hand of the Divine, but an assassin who helped save Ferelden from the fifth Blight.
Scout Harding is a tough as nails and cute as a button dwarven scout that still manages to care about the work she does and the Inquisitor she works for. Vivienne is a an ambitious court mage and a total bitch, but still in love with her ailing lover of noble birth. She plots and schemes and plays the Orlesian Game to perfection.
I’m not asked to collect pin-ups of these women. In fact, they’re just there, being extraordinary – and human – next to the men, and no one rubs their shortcomings or objectified bodies in my face.
There are other things as well. On the War Board I can send a champion to compete in a tourney. This will result in a report where the champion is a she – and that the Inquisition should raise her pay, since she did so well in the competition.
A note in the guest quarters points out that Aurore has found a new lover in Val Royeaux and is abandoning her man for a woman. Dorian’s personal quest pits him against his father, who in a fit of what I only can assume is insanity, tried to use blood magic on his own son to change him. Dorian’s only fault being that he is gay. But the game is firmly on Dorian’s side in all this, letting me as a player know in no uncertain terms that Dorian is in the right, his father wrong.
These are all reminders that I belong. I have a place here. I am not an anomaly, far from it. I am a welcome resident, I can stay as long as I want.
And if you have to show a world that is sexist, why not go about it the same way as The Order 1886? Yes, there’s a whorehouse, a bordello, in the game. It soon becomes abundantly clear that this is not some guilt free fantasy land. The women have a pimp, and the sex is pure business. It’s a sexist world, yes, but the game is not. The game treats this sordid business as slightly distasteful, something that is clearly communicated through the eyes of Sir Galahad, the protagonist in the game.
The breasts on display are not really on display in the same way as they are in GTA V. They’re just there. There’s nothing gratuitous about it. Nor is there anything special about the naked man you fight. He just happens to be naked.
All of these subtle reminders matter, because they set the tone in the game. They decide who is welcome and who is not. They cull the audience to suit them. Anyone saying differently has not spent hours and hours being insidiously insulted by a game, until all that is enjoyable has turned to chores to be completed.
So when you ask me why I won’t play a “brilliant game” because of sexism, it is because you have no idea what it means to be derided and insulted incessantly for 40 hours or more. Constantly rejected by a piece of popular culture, that with some thought could have suited so many more players and probably lost very little in the process. Apart from sexism and pin-ups.