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Aug 23 2013

In a strange, pathetic little niche

One of the sectors of The Culture where under-representation of women (in all senses) is an issue, along with rage at efforts to rectify the under-representation, is gaming. Ernest Adams addresses the issue at Gamasutra.

The topic of institutionalized misogyny in game culture is finally getting the attention it deserves, and the situation is grim. Once again we embarrassed ourselves at the Electronic Entertainment Expo with a parade of booth babes and an Xbox One launch that featured a rape joke and not a single female protagonist among its launch titles. Try pointing this out to many industry executives and you’ll get a collective shrug. Try pointing it out in online gamer spaces and you get howls of outrage and a torrent of vile abuse from a small number of very angry men. The attacks get worse if the person who points it out happens to be a woman: death threats, threats of sexual violence, character assassination and cyberstalking are commonplace. Jennifer Hepler, a writer at BioWare, recently received explicit death threats… not to her but to her children, a new low.

The haters are simply infuriated at the suggestion that games might be improved by making them more appealing to women, and they’re warning us that they’ll do something about it.

No girls in the club house!

So who is asking for a change, and what exactly are they asking for? I’m going to call them “progressive gamers,” for want of a better term; they’re both men and women. With respect to gender in games (the treatment of racial minorities or under-represented sexualities is a separate, but related issue), their requests are simple and few:

  1. More opportunities to play female protagonists in AAA titles.
  2. More female characters—especially protagonists—who are not hypersexualized and whose clothing is appropriate for their activity.
  3. More female characters portrayed as strong and competent people rather than victims, trophies, or sex objects.

More female cooties, in other words.

If you visit YouTube or the gamer message boards frequented by reactionary players, you encounter, again and again, the same set of arguments for not building any new games that the progressive players might like. I’ll summarize them here:

  • Dismissive: They’re only games; they’re not important, so it doesn’t matter if there aren’t many women or their portrayal of women is unrealistic.
  • Male chauvinist: Feminazis are pushing their way into the game industry with their political correctness, and they’re going to ruin games and (male) gaming culture.
  • Ignorant: Asking for female protagonists in games is a violation of game designers’ freedom of speech.
  • Misogynist“Wherever there are happy men there will always be a woman there to ruin it.” That’s about the mildest quote I could find.
  • Financial: Male players don’t like to play female characters, and they like to see the women in games eroticized. The game industry will lose a lot of money if it stops catering to those men.

Ernest then provides actual information on the financial claim and finds it to be dead wrong. His conclusion is very heartening, because it applies to other sectors of The Culture too.

By this point it should be clear that if the reactionary players leave in a huff, it won’t do us any real harm. Like all extremists, they wildly overestimate the number of people who agree with them, and the sales that they represent are too small a fraction of the overall numbers to worry about. They are noisy and obnoxious, but financially irrelevant. We don’t need the haters.

The only companies in the industry that are at risk are ones whose business depends on selling games to these clowns. It’s kind of stupid to alienate a large audience in order to serve a small one, and as our markets continue to grow, they will end up in a strange, pathetic little niche like strip poker games.

They are noisy and obnoxious, but otherwise irrelevant.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    StarStalker

    “They’re only games; they’re not important, so it doesn’t matter if there aren’t many women or their portrayal of women is unrealistic.”

    If they say this then it also doesn’t matter the opposite way, so there’s no reason to be opposed to these suggested changes.

  2. 2
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    I’d like too see a good portion of the FPS crowd go away so that game companies will stop making Return of the Brown Castle over and over and over again and actually give us games that are well-designed and fun.

  3. 3
    doublereed

    I think there’s a lot of opportunities for awesome games.

    The booth babe thing is really creepy. It’s not just gaming that does it, of course. It seems like something out of the 50s or 60s.

    Pfff “progressive gamers”? It’s more like “everyone else” or “non-douchebags.”

  4. 4
    aziraphale

    World of Warcraft is currently my online game of choice. I’m impressed by the way any character you meet, at any level of society, is as likely to be female as male. Also I often play as a female character and have never been harassed. I wonder if WoW is different from other games, and if so why, or have I just been lucky?

  5. 5
    WithinThisMind

    It amazes me that some of these folks spewing out threats aren’t arrested. With things like XBox Live, you know who these people are. You have the name on the credit card tied to the account. Let them do 6 months in jail to think about what asshats they are. It’s a better use of prison space than locking up folks for smoking pot.

  6. 6
    spiffo

    I think it’s less “game companies are catering to these clowns” and more “game companies are RUN by these clowns”

  7. 7
    A Hermit

    “…a strange, pathetic little niche” had me expecting a post about the Slymepit.

  8. 8
    doublereed

    @4

    I am under the impression that World of Warcraft is exceptional in that regard, because it actually has a rather large proportion of women playing it. Although I believe the avatar ratio is closer to real life than the actual people playing (as in, lots of men play female avatars).

  9. 9
    leebrimmicombe-wood

    Speaking as a developer, I can vouch that there are plenty of progressive devs in the business. Many of us want (and have tried) to put more women into games. The brick wall we run into is at the publisher end, particularly Marketing. They are very resistant to women characters in games. And it’s surprising the numbers of times that old tropes such as ‘women protagonists don’t sell games’ surface and resurface, in spite of examples to the contrary. I swear these guys spend too long with focus groups that are primarily made of twenty-something dudebros from Peoria.

    I have told war stories about this stuff here before. Again, I say the hinge is Publisher/Marketing. The power they wield over this high-level decision-making is immense.

  10. 10
    Pteryxx

    I swear these guys spend too long with focus groups that are primarily made of twenty-something dudebros from Peoria.

    As it happens…

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/123139-Devs-Had-to-Demand-Female-Focus-Testers-for-The-Last-of-Us

    “My big surprise during this process is that the research group wasn’t planning on focus-testing female gamers – it’s something we had to specifically request. I hope this is a relic of the past that will soon go away.”

    Yes, you read that correctly. The research firm that was gathering opinions of a game about a man, Joel, and a teenage girl, Ellie, wasn’t planning on seeing how actual living, breathing female gamers felt.

    http://www.gamingangels.com/2011/05/interview-tonya-constant-co-founder-of-the-ant-firm/

    The Ant Firm tells us that while 43% of all gamers are female, the truth is 86% of games testers are male. They strongly believe that those who test games should adequately reflect those who are playing them.

    Source referencing Wired

    In a related pair of examples, both Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us had issues with their major female characters appearing on the box covers. With Bioshock Infinite, Elizabeth was relegated to the back cover, which creative director Ken Levine explained was due to focus testing, which he admits was done in frat houses.

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    A Hermit – well quite.

  12. 12
    Great American Satan

    My dude worked at a video game company, making first person shooters. Some peeps working on the game wanted a playable lady character, and a model (the figure in 3d) was made. Playtesting as they went, influential people on the team said “her butt looks too big” or “we’d need a separate rig for her” (rig=the skeleton that allows animation), as if moving in the same way as the male characters was too butch or something. Anyhow, even granting them these points, adjusting them – scaling the butt, making the new rig – would be less than a day of labor that they weren’t willing to do.

    Long story short= No lady character. Too much hassle. Yup.
    -

  13. 13
    leebrimmicombe-wood

    Great American Satan, it’s more than just the rig. To do it well you also require a lot of woman-specific animations. So the impact of adding women characters into a game are: models, rigs, anims, all of which represent manpower budget to make and also memory budget in the game, which in the case of anims can be considerable.

    Given that games are tradeoffs of many features, assets and objectives, it’s possible to see why many dev teams might make the call to either (a) remove one gender from the game, or (b) fudge the women so that their appearance is lower quality. For example, on a game I recently shipped, a woman villain used the male anims (which looked odd) and had incredibly wide (male) shoulders. Given the size of our anim budget, to have had a woman-specific set-up would have required making big savings from memory elsewhere, such as environments, assets and textures.

    This is not to excuse the practice, but to illustrate how decisions can sometimes be reached.

  14. 14
    Great American Satan

    I have a little background in the subject as well (met my dude in college), and I can tell you my assessment of the situation was accurate. It was a project so poorly managed that it wasted millions of the client’s dollars, was pulled and given to another company at the last minute, and the resultant game made a lot of top ten worst lists for the year it was shit out onto an unsuspecting public (years after an early projected release date.)

    All these things you mention could have been done by any number of employees (this company had dozens) who were sitting on their thumbs most of the time because the management never had a plan in the first place and spent most of their time failing at damage control, fundamentally misunderstanding what the problems were in the first place. When my guy was “working” on that “triple A” title, the work went like this:

    Two weeks making boring assets like buckets and crap that the level designers will never implement. Ten weeks reducing the polys and otherwise downgrading every model in the game, because the designers and programmers never tested the actual abilities of the game engine to handle the type of open levels they had committed to. Ten months doing busy work like managing files because there’s nothing left for an artist to actually do.

    It would make a hilarious book, if my dude didn’t find it too depressing to write about.

  15. 15
    Great American Satan

    Also, I don’t personally know how it works in typical video games, but I remember when using a biped in 3ds max, you could load any saved animation for any model with the appropriate number of limb segments, without it looking too weird. It was an FPS with nothing special going on in it, so… It’s not like women shoot a gun or run all that differently, unless the sexual dimorphism of the models is extreme. It really wasn’t. How long would these adjustments take?

    Mostly, even if it was more difficult than I imagine, they did have dozens of people wasting years on that project.

  16. 16
    MEFoley

    @StarStalker (comment 1) — and anybody else interested: Ernest brushes away all of the objections other than the financial one with about one sentence each, as the wrongness of each one is obvious to anybody who isn’t grasping at straws to shore up the status quo. And then he demolishes the financial argument in detail.

    I was going to urge people to read the original article, but what the heck? Here’s the rebuttal section for the first four:

    >>>
    We can write off the first four arguments pretty quickly:

    Dismissive: If the content of games doesn’t matter, why are you objecting to some new ones?

    Male chauvinist: This is identical to the argument that people used to use to keep Jews out of the country club, and it deserves the same response. If gaming culture will be “ruined” by making it a little less hostile to female players, then what you value in gaming culture—bigotry and exclusion—is not worth preserving. Let the ruination commence.

    Ignorant: Asking for female protagonists in games is an exercise of freedom of speech. Consumer activism is not censorship.

    Misogynist: Please join a monastery where you can lead a completely happy, woman-free life.
    <<<

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