I have been playing Bioware’s games with great enjoyment for quite some time now. I didn’t even know it at the time, but Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate eased me into the particular brand of game crafted by this company, a legacy lovingly built on by titles such as Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age.
To me, Bioware fills a niche that other games don’t. First off, I can play with a woman avatar and that is always a plus, if not a must, for me. Secondly, the games play around not only with game mechanics, but with emotions and relatedness.
Since I have a very hard time relating to heroes such as Nathan Drake (or for that matter just about any hero in a game voiced by Nolan North or Troy Baker) the opportunities granted to me by Bioware are very welcome. I can not only choose what gender I am, I can also choose how to react in certain situations. Basically I can describe my own character to myself.
I can understand – in a purely theoretical sense – the need for square jawed, bestubbled, cishetero white men with gruff voices saving the world from ruin, but those characters fail to engage, perhaps because they are cookie cutter shapes, repeated over and over, like gingerbread men.
Sooner or later, no matter how much you like gingerbread, the cookies will become boring. Imagine what it would be like if you don’t even like gingerbread?
So when Bioware offers another set of cookies entirely, of course I’ll eat them. Gladly. To be honest though, Bioware offers cake. Heady chocolate cake with raspberry filling, because Bioware offers not only a choice but relationships.
If you’ve seen the adorable nomination video for Dragon Age Inquisition’s Game of the Year awards ceremony, you’ll know that they are aware of this. However, I’d say it’s not just as simple as a half-naked Cullen traipsing across the screen. It’s about feeling wanted.
The relationship controversy started early for Bioware. In Mass Effect, there’s a potential love scene between the main character, Shepard, and her/ his love interest. This was discussed by Fox News. In the coverage, the reporter stated that the game presented “full digital nudity” and that the players could engage in “graphic sex”. The reporter also stated that the game was marketed towards kids, which is not even remotely correct. None of the statements made by Fox news were actually true (there’s barely any nudity), but the news channel have yet to set the record straight.
Since then (maybe even before then) every new release from Bioware have been met with “what’s the sex like?” and “who can you romance?”.
In Dragon Age Origins, the selection of potential love interests was even wider than in Mass Effect (two for men, two for women, although technically, one of the choices for women was Liara. Who looks like a woman.), but it wasn’t until Dragon Age II that cishetero men decided that enough was enough. Well, at least one of them did.
Bastal, a user on the Bioware forums, decided that Bioware neglected their main demographic, namely straight male gamers.
In every previous BioWare game, I always felt that almost every companion in the game was designed for the male gamer in mind. Every female love interest was always written as a male friend type support character. In Dragon Age 2, I felt like most of the companions were designed to appeal to other groups foremost, Anders and Fenris for gays and Aveline for women given the lack of strong women in games, and that for the straight male gamer, a secondary concern. It makes things very awkward when your male companions keep making passes at you. The fact that a “No Homosexuality” option, which could have been easily implemented, is omitted just proves my point.
This is a person talking from a position of privilege. David Gaider himself answered this long and quite homophobic post (now removed from the forums, I think), with just about those words.
[…]if there is any doubt why such an opinion might be met with hostility, it has to do with privilege. You can write it off as “political correctness” if you wish, but the truth is that privilege always lies with the majority. They’re so used to being catered to that they see the lack of catering as an imbalance. They don’t see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what’s everyone’s fuss all about? That’s the way it should be, any everyone else should be used to not getting what they want.
In addition to the lament about lack of female romance options, Bastal repeats the same arguments that privileged male gamers often repeat in this context. He talks about the fact that no women play “real” games (“Sure, there are a substantial amount of women who play video games, but they’re usually gamers who play games like The Sims, rather than games like Dragon Age.”) and proceeded to talk about how the demographic simply wouldn’t support the choices in the game. Of course, the most offensive part in Bastal’s post was the implied homophobia. He couldn’t handle that Anders made a pass at him. Bastal also brings up The Witcher as a game catering to straight male gamers. I’m not surprised as The Witcher is a subtly but deeply sexist game. Of course it caters to straight male gamers. It has a decidedly male outlook.
The Dragon Age II discussion was way back in 2012 (AGES ago, internet time wise), but the same discussion has popped up again with Dragon Age Inquisition. In this case, the complaint is that as a woman elf you’ll have the most romance options, because some romance options are locked to race, and others to gender.
This is apparently another hard blow against the straight male gamer, because I can not count the number of threads and comments stating that straight men only get two romance options while straight women get 4. The first thing to sort out in this mess is what the options actually are.
Straight from Mike Ladilaw, this is the lowdown.
Here are our “core” romance options. They are available to players of any race, and fulfill our first design goal of providing multiple options to everyone:
Cassandra is interested in male characters.
Blackwall is interested in female characters.
Josephine is interested in both male and female characters
Iron Bull is interested in both male and female characters
Sera is interested in female characters.
Dorian is interested in male characters.
Two “additional” romance options were added to the game as a result of the extra development time DA:I received. They are more limited in scope, largely for reasons directly related to their story arcs, but are otherwise the equal of the other options:
Cullen is interested in female elves and female humans.
Solas is interested in female elves only.
This means that of our core cast, Varric, Vivienne, Cole, and Leliana are not romance options. While we know this may disappoint some fans who were interested in them, we don’t believe that they lose out, as each character engages in their own meaningful story.
From this, it should be fairly easy to read that yes, if you are a woman and an elf you do indeed have six options. If you are a human woman you have five options, and if you’re a dwarf or qunari you have to settle for four. But two of those four options are women, meaning that if you play a female dwarf or qunari that is in addition to being a woman also straight, the numbers look the same as for the male player. That’s a fact that many seem to forget. Male characters also have four options, but oh, two of them are gay. It apparently matters for men, but for women it doesn’t really count if you’re straight, does it? The same issue popped up in Mass Effect, where FemShep could romance both Liara and Kaidan. The problem being that Liara is more or less a woman, never mind that she’s a monogendered alien species. She looks like a woman, she talks like a woman. She fawns in a very female way over Shepard (just like the consort does) and she’s obviously there to make men feel a bit better about themselves. To be fair, she has a very good character arc, but the basis for Liara is still to cater to a straight male player.
The people objecting, saying that women have more options than men, that it is unfair, refuse to see that they’re talking from a privileged position. Why should the game cater to men? Or even male avatars (because if you’re unhappy with your choices you can make a female avatar, right?)?
If you don’t like it, you can always refrain from buying it. Do you recognize the argument? It’s one of the most common arguments I get when I criticize a game that I think has issues. Of course the “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” argument has always been deeply flawed, because it on the one hand implies that there is a plethora of other games to buy that aren’t afflicted with the same offhand sexism as The Witcher or the blatant misogyny of GTA V, and on the other, it implies that games are no more than a business transaction. An entity in a bubble, not affecting or affected by the current social climate and culture that surrounds us.
Saying “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” is disregarding the whole ecosystem of game development and gaming culture, as it has been during the late 80’s and moving forward. It’s disregarding that most games up until now have been made for men, by men and that the gaming industry have been hiring in a very homogeneous fashion – men who like to play games that men make.
Many of the discussions I’ve read about the culture surrounding games and the content in games focus on a few select points. One – that what we see on screen isn’t real. Two – that the messages contained in the games do not rub off on reality. Three – that game developers should have their freedom in creating whatever games they like.
Bioware is very aware of all the design choices that have gone into their game, and they are well prepared to answer for them. Take Two and Rockstar are not, that’s why they’re using the “creative freedom” and “freedom of speech” defense which doesn’t really say anything about why they’ve made the choices they’ve made.
With this in mind, I think it’s very telling that a game that doesn’t obviously cater to straight male gamers receive criticism for not catering to straight male gamers, from, surprise, straight male gamers. This is privilege talking. Perhaps you’ll say that the response “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” is invalid in this respect and that it points to a certain amount of schadenfreude to finally be in a position where marginalized players are not the odd ones out. I would agree. But only if we recognize that that specific defense is not really a defense at all, but a deflection. And if we agree on that, we’ve opened a whole different can of worms, namely the fact that the discussion about problematic areas in games is valid, and that creators should be held accountable for the design decisions they make.
You can not have one without the other.