Inspired both by a thread at a role-playing forum and by an event that took place at work yesterday (which I unfortunately can’t repeat here), I thought I’d pose some questions regarding game development and why the ever present average white heterosexual male gamer is so terrified to share screen time and text space with other presences than other average white heterosexual male gamers.*

I’ve discussed gaming and the way women are portrayed in games for a very long time now, and the thing that strikes me the most is the unwillingness to admit other people, not just the above mentioned grouping into the world of games.

The unwillingness consists of reluctance to give up the misogynistic, racist and ableist attitude some games** have. For instance, did you know that in Arkham City, the word “bitch” is a universal catch-all for the female characters in the game?

Female characters are universally referred to as “bitch,” the ambient banter between miscellaneous henchmen in respect to the game’s female characters is always sexually charged, and nasty undercurrents of sexual violence run throughout.

On the Realism of Sexism, Ontological Geek

Any critisism is met with a “Waaai, waaai do you want to CENSOR games?” without any real reflection about what this unwillingness to change the games for the better*** actually means. Or – as the Ontological Geek post so wisely points out – the question of “realism” pops up. Considering that we’re playing games that are mostly about dungeons, dragons, comic book characters and other things I for my part do not run into in daily life even half as much as I might want to, the issue of realism is really just a cover for what’s really going on.

I’m going straight to the controversial quote here.

If it’s not a problem to you that games with a misogynistic, racist or ableist attitude shuts minorities out of gaming, you really don’t want minorities to game.

Please note that when I talk about minorities in this specific instance I’m talking about perceived minorities and representational minorities, not actual gamer minorities, considering the statistics below.

For me that bold question is what it boils down to, it’s as simple as that. I actually asked that very question in the forum thread I was debating in, but I never got a reply.

A question I very often get is “why aren’t more women playing games”. Well, first off, we are. About 47% of all the gamers are women. About 37% of all console gamers are women. These statistics apply to 62% of the online population, meaning people having access to the Internet, and the figures are relatively fresh (source). And just about every gamer of the female persuasion I know have a problem with the way that women are depicted in games. With depiction I’m not just talking about the way they look (often sexualised, objectified) but also about how they act (passive, helpless, background). I’m not sure about other representational minorities. I, unfortunately for me, also live in a bit of a privilege bubble, although that bubble is more of a white middle class bubble. Anyway.

Women in particular is a strong audience with a lot of buying power and not that many developers give a damn about them. That goes for both the very small market of role-playing game developers as well as the larger market of digital developers. I know for a fact that not many triple-A titles have a female target audience. I’d say no triple-A titles have a female target audience, but I’m not sure I’d be telling the truth. There might be a rare flower out there, blossoming unbeknownst to me.

So why is this? Why, dear developers, have you no interest in allowing women to get the same kicks, the same wonderful experiences that your average white heterosexual dude get when playing a game? Why do I have to, even if I love Mass Effect, stand for the game zooming in on an asari consorts butt? Or Miranda Lawson’s butt. Or whatever butt you decide that I should be interested in looking at? (Actually, there is one butt I do want to look at, and in the third installation of the game, I get to do that, so kudos****). After the second installation, Mass Effect actually got the nickname “Ass Effect”. Considering how well the game does in other areas I think it’s unfortunate that this sort of crap still happen, because that sort of crap jolts me out of my immersion and tells me, quite loudly:”YO! This game be for men!” And that’s one of the best games out there! And it still whacks me over the head on occasion, telling me “this is a man’s world, and you don’t belong. Unless you’re pretty and have a conventionally attractive ass. And like to look at women”.

In precisely the same way a table top role-playing game tells me “Hey, I’m not for you because all the women in this game? Well, first of all they have huge boobs, secondly, they all wear chainmail bikini, and to top it off they don’t actually do anything, they just look pretty”. I’m exaggerating. It can be more subtle than this. Actually, the subtle sexism can be even more harmful.

So why should you care? Why should you bother with changing the way women and other game minorities are represented in games? Because art and entertainment is part of our popular culture and popular culture both mirror and shape our societal attitudes and norms. Gary Alan Fine was the first one to come out and say it – games very rarely step outside of the cultural norms. Gamers keep to what they know. But games not only mirror, they also shape, meaning that the way women are represented and treated in games is an approval to treat women the same way in the real world, especially if they represent themselves in any way even close to how they look in the games. Booth babes, anyone? Or for that matter sexual harassment at conventions?

So the question is – do you really want to create a game that propagates sexism? Are you aware of what you’re doing as a developer? And would it really hurt to be more accepting and welcoming to minorities? (Again perceived and representational minorities.)

Let me pose a theory. I believe that gamers, no matter what walk of life they come from, play because it fulfills a couple of needs that they have. There’s even a book about the player experience of needs satisfaction (PENS for short) and a paper that you can find here (PDF) from Immersyve if you want to dig deeper.

PENS divides the needs of the player into three areas:
1. Competence – the need to feel mastery of a situation, and the competency to handle a challenge
2. Autonomy – the need to feel in control of the game and in control of his or her actions, and the need to feel in control of the choices the player character makes
3. Relatedness – the need to feel connected to others through the game, or to feel connected to the non-player characters of the game

Now PENS looks at the psychological, behavioral and emotional causes as to why some games succeed and some games do not. Unfortunately I’ve only ever seen the PENS model applied to games with the target audience of the above average white male heterosexual gamer, but that is besides the point. I’d like to expand this theory somewhat and bring in the need to fulfill desires that the player have, both the desire to feel powerful and – since sexism is very common in role-playing games – erotic desires.*****

I also believe that the idea of gaming being a subculture may have something to do with the resistance to opening up to new audiences, in particular when it comes to table top role-playing games.

From Wikipedia:

As early as 1950, David Riesman distinguished between a majority, “which passively accepted commercially provided styles and meanings, and a ‘subculture’ which actively sought a minority style … and interpreted it in accordance with subversive values”. In his 1979 book Subculture: the Measuring of Style, Dick Hebdige argued that a subculture is a subversion to normalcy. He wrote that subcultures can be perceived as negative due to their nature of criticism to the dominant societal standard. Hebdige argued that subcultures bring together like-minded individuals who feel neglected by societal standards and allow them to develop a sense of identity.

As I stated above, we all play to feel competent, to feel that we are in control of our surroundings, that we can make our own choices, and to feel some sort of connectedness. To feel that we belong somewhere. Connectedness ties into the subculture thread quite nicely.

In Gaming as Culture Kevin Schut talks about the gender roles of American men, and how men should act and react to live up to these gender roles. I believe that a part of the reluctance to let women into the games stems from this need to live up to what it means to be a man. Not being able to live up to the ideals that are expected of us can be crippling and detrimental both to our mental and our physical health. Just as I believe that women can take the demands of beauty to a level where they get sick from doing so, I also believe that men have the same kinds of pressures on them to live up to a model of maleness that isn’t always easy to negotiate, and I – and Kevin Schut with me – believe that games can be a way of experiencing that perfect fit, living up to being a Real Man. In a world that is often conflicted about what a Real Man is, and especially now that the gender roles are fluid and inconsistent and even contradictory, it’s probably very nice to sit back and relax with Uncharted or Assassins Creed. Nathan Drake will never doubt himself or the right to be who he is. He will remain an ideal of male behavior, even if it’s just one facet of what it means to be a man. And he is powerful, he has agency and the player can relate to him. Maybe not all players*****, but enough.

In addition to this, and as a part of the subculture thread, gamers and nerds in general have often been treated derisively in press and in the mainstream consciousness. Male gamers are often portrayed as social misfits, emotionally and intellectually immature in the media. It’s an attempt to de-gender and render the participants of the subculture impotent, powerless. In contrast, the games places the player in the seat of power and in a position where wishes can be fulfilled, both from a power and a sexual perspective.

Again in Gaming as Culture Michelle Nephew quotes Andrew Rilestone, and I’ll quote them both.

Many role-playing games are set in archaic cultures in which politically incorrect values are the norm: not only the romanticized Middle Ages but also Victorian England or the 1930s. In such societies, the roles of women and men were more sharply differentiated than they are today. Could it be that, for male gamers, this is part of the appeal? Perhaps it appeals to the same ethos as the Wild Man culture: that some men – particularly, perhaps, rather studious, unathletic “nerds” – yearn for a world of heterosexual male friendships; of hunting honor and warfare.

And Michelle Nephew follows up:

From this perspective, including the historical facts of sexual inequality and other discriminatory practices as part of the game setting allows male players to escape into a game world that validates their own sense of worth by making their characters physically and socially superior to others around them, whether those “others” happen to be monsters or women. The constructed pseudo-histories of many RPGs represent a purposeful blurring of reality and fiction to create this kind of androcentric game environment […]

This sort of ideal state is disturbed by women barging in on the scene and all of a sudden making demands that to some may seem very threatening. We want characters we can identify with (away with the ideal man!), we want stories that aren’t based on sex and violence (a very male domain to be sure) and we want to join in in a subculture that has previously been reserved for the nerds, the underdogs – but a subculture where the nerds have been at the top of the hierarchy. Basically, what I believe that the average white heterosexual male gamer dude thinks is that all of us “newbies” (hey, what’s 25 years of gaming when you’re a girl? Certainly not real gaming!) will do is disrupt games and change them so much that they can no longer live out their fantasies in the games. The flights of fancy will become heavy socio-political identity games more related to Zolá than Jerry Bruckheimer.

A part of that disruption is of course to endow women not with big boobs but with power and privilege previously reserved for men. This power and “subjectification” of women will lead to women depicted in games becoming “real people” in the sense that they are more than just a way to get some form of sexual gratification, or to be used as a confirmation of power. Just as Nathan Drake can be said to be a fairly well rounded – if somewhat stereotypical – person a female lead would have to have the same level of detail and the same fairly well rounded personality. And a game that has a fairly well rounded female in the lead will not have a male lead, which may be seen as a loss. After all, there aren’t that many releases per year, and not all releases suit all players, so I sort of get the greed perspective.

At the same time, consider that even less releases are targeted to a female audience (again, I’d say none, but I for my part have found my niche with BioWare’s games) meaning that the female audience go without completely.

A result of the “subjectification” of women would also mean that the mirroring and shaping aspect would change. Instead of getting a sense of superiority from the games – because frankly that’s exactly what happens – dudes would most likely come away from the games seeing women as people and not as… well… women. What I mean by the superiority aspect is of course that if women are next to useless, or if they confirm stereotypes of what women are and how they should act in the games, it’s easier to treat women as useless or stereotypical. There is a number of research papers describing how human beings connect stereotypes to actual people, both from a preferential treatment and a discriminatory treatment perspective. These stereotypes even affect ourselves and how we think about ourselves, so for me it’s not that far fetched to actually believe that what I see in the game will affect how I treat people in real life.

So, my thoughts on the subject, my conclusion, is that a certain subset of male gamers have a very hard time giving up space for percieved and representational minorities because of the loss of power and identity this might mean. The protests are less about the surface stuff (realism etc) and more about a changing subculture that might come to include unwanted traits and a change to a carefully built identity that protects and supports the gamer. This subculture supports the ideal of what it is to be a man, and gives the participants a sense of power, autonomy and identity – basically that they are a part of a context.

And now, I’m at the end of this wall of text, and I have no finishing punchline apart from the fact that I, as a woman, also want to feel empowered. I also want autonomy, and identity. And I’ll be damned before I stop fighting for it.
* I’m being flippant. After twelve years of the games industry and 25 years as a game aficionado, I’ve earned the right to be a bit nasty. And of course, this is a generalisation. You may not belong to the average white heterosexual male gamer group.

** Not all games. Some games are racist. Some games are misogynistic. Some games are ableist. Some games are all of the above. Some games are none of the above.

*** I think it would be for the better. Maybe that’s just me.

**** I’m of course referring to Kaidan Alenko’s butt. I think the fan community have even written poetry to describe it. All I can say is that, yes, it’s nice to be recognized as a participant in the game, ogling a butt and all, but to be honest I’d rather be rid of all the other instances where a female butt is put up for male gazing than to get that brief moment of butt ogling for myself.

**** Come on! You did SO see this coming!

***** I can’t. I can’t relate to Nathan Drake, to whatever the dude is called in Assassins Creed or in Red Dead Redemption. Simply put, I have a real hard time “bonding” with male avatars, which of course limits me somewhat when playing.