Relatedness refers to the social nature of human beings and the connectedness with others. Both can be considered as being part of the panhuman psychology and both are intrinsically intertwined.
– Heidi Keller, Psychological autonomy and hierarchical relatedness as organizers of developmental pathways

The title of this blog post, put a dog in there, refers to advice we were given as game developers by a visiting consultant firm. One of those places that are experts on what gamers want, and that developers hire to make sure they’re on the right path. At the moment I can’t remember the exact quote or which firm’s representative it was that gave us the advice. The bottom line, however, was that if you want a player 1 to feel or experience relatedness2 to another character in the game, don’t put a woman in there. Apparently women were less likely to create a feeling of friendship than a dog.

Think about that for a moment. Dogs tested better3 than women when it came to establishing a friendship in game with an NPC. For a while there were a lot of games with dogs in them.

Relatedness is a part of what’s called the theory of self-determination, a theory used to explain what motivates human beings to act and be motivated to act, something that’s very important for game developers – we want players to return to our games, after all.

I want you to consider the implications of this for a while. A professional advisory consultant hired by a bunch of different game developers said that players are more likely to build a relationship with a dog than with a woman in game.

Why is this important? I think it goes to show – in part – why the culture at certain studios is implicitly4 toxic. Think about it. Event he statement from that consultancy company implies it. We’re more likely to empathise with an animal than a human being, if that human being is coded as a woman.

With that in mind, I’d like to take you on a little trip into my reasoning around why this is a problem. Nuances are difficult because they call for us to consider gray scales. This is why we stick to black and white in games. Ernest Adams – at a workshop I attended led by him – stated that you can either kill unrealistic or inhuman characters realistically, or realistic and human characters unrealistically, but you can never kill a realistic enemy realistically without that churning feeling of unease. And in addition, some cultures simply won’t allow for it in games. Japan is very finicky when it comes to how things can be represented.5

As game designers we are the ones deciding what goes into our games. If a consultancy firm, loved by publishers and CEOs alike, tell us that there’s a higher likelihood that we sympathise with dogs than with women – and we believe them – we’re reinforcing the idea that women are less relatable than animals. This is a message that’s already bombarding us as every turn, every day. It’s not restricted to women, though. People from other marginalised groups are pretty much treated the same.

The criticism levelled against Call of Duty, where the enemy – yet again – is cast in a cookie cutter definition of evil and the player is on the side of good, is one such example. The evil is invariably a set of Middle Eastern or Asian men, mostly people of color. You can argue that Call of Duty is a relic, that the politics that the game is based on are long past their prime, but the truth is that when Western-centric game developers imagine the world, they imagine it with themselves in the starring role as a force for good.

To be honest, I don’t think we should keep patting ourselves so vigorously on the back. Colonialism and the slave trade are hardly things to feel proud about, and yet we’re perfectly happy propagating the lie that the West is superior to the East. Logic and science6 over emotion and faith.

If you think you recognize this from another aspect of patriarchy, you would be right. Men get to represent logic, rationale and science, and women get to represent nature, emotion and faith. And so we’re back to square one. Varric Tethras – storyteller extraordinaire and a character from Dragon Age – put it well. There’s power in stories. I don’t even think he was the first to say that. We all know it. To the victor goes the spoils, but not only that. To the victor goes history, because history is written by those in power.

If we, as developers, keep denying that, and keep reinforcing colonialism, sexism, homophobia, and racism in our games – through for instance listening to consultants when they tell us dogs are more relatable than women – we’ll keep perpetuating views that are harmful to marginalised people.

Part of why I think there’s such an outcry against “politics” in games is because the politics we react against are politics that require us to look at the world differently and that challenge assumptions, such as that players relate better to animals than to women.

Think about the scene in Blade Runner from 1982 (ANCIENT!), where Deckard forces himself on Rachael. At the time, that was considered a romantic scene. Today, it comes across as sexual assault. Things change. Society changes. We change. But for us to change, we must challenge ourselves and challenge the status quo.

The next time a consultant firm says “put a dog in there, players relate better to dogs than to women”, stop and question that assumption. Ask yourself “what would it take for players to relate to a woman, and how can we make that happen in a good way?”

With the stories we tell come the models we use to understand the world. If we stop saying that women are worth less than animals, that people from marginalised groups have a value in and of themselves, it might just happen that the world follows, however slowly.

There is, after all, power in stories.

  1. In other words a white, heterosexual cis man. You know who I’m talking about.
  2. Relatedness refers to the desire to feel loved, connected to others, and meaningfully involved with the broader social world.
  3. Again, when asked about the audience tested, it was exclusively white, heterosexual, cis men. Yes. We asked.
  4. Or explicitly, for that matter.
  5. As an example, you can have nipples on a male presenting character, but you can’t have nipples on a female presenting character. Skeletons are also an issue.
  6. A fallacy, since the cradle of science is definitely Middle Eastern.