The Death of Games Journalism — Part 3: Woman Problems
Women play video games. Women develop video games. Women love video games. This shouldn’t be such a hard concept to grasp. Games media talks about “women in gaming” and “women in the industry” like they are genuinely incapable of grasping these painfully obvious observations. You want to know the real conspiracy against women in the games industry? Here’s the scoop.
Let’s first address the perceived lack of female characters in games. In 2008 the world experienced a financial contraction that affected all industries, especially in western economies. This added to a situation where massively increased development costs for high-definition gaming and inflated marketing budgets created a climate where if a flagship console release failed then it had a shot at bringing the publisher down with it. This shaped a gaming landscape in which the publishers for “next-gen” gaming consoles were shit-scared of losing money and adopted game creation practices that were ultra cautious in their adherence to the formulas of previous successful titles, whilst also attempting to emulate the successes of their competitors. It’s not that “women in games” were stifled, everything was stifled. We almost lost entire genres. Publishers damn near stopped pushing big-budget RTS (real-time strategy) games in the last five years and yet no one goes on about the intolerance and bigotry towards RTS fans within the games industry because these games are not getting representation. Until the recent release of Grey Goo their representation had shrunk to Starcraft 2 and pretty much dick all else. Excluding re-makes and re-masters, name five big budget AAA RTS games in the last five years. I can’t do it and I’m a fan of the genre.
For the longest time the horror game genre seemed dead in the water as well. It took the release of lower budget PC titles to give it a kick in the pants and stop horror games from being completely folded into the action game genre. Look at the homogenized piles of box-ticking that was the Dead Space sequels or Resident Evil 6 and think about the sorry state much of the output of major publishers has been this area.
Creativity and innovation has suffered across the board. There wasn’t a resistance to female lead characters because of sexism, bigotry, misogyny, patriarchy or conspiracy; it was out of financial caution and part of the wider picture of games being made to stick closer to tried and true formulas. It’s not a unique problem but rather a symptom of the wider issues that, for other sectors, games journalists seem to have readily identified. It would seem obvious to anyone with even a hint of marketing experience that games were being over focus-tested and that the balance of power between marketing and creative departments has shifted to an unhealthy degree. How can a games journalist who gets paid to do their “craft” not see that the reason for Dead Space having its atmospheric horror aspects gutted is the same reason for a lack of progression in lead characters that don’t already conform to a proven formula? Let’s do the same exercise from our RTS example again, name five big budget AAA games in the last five years, but with strong female leads in them:
- Tomb Raider (2013): A game received to much feminist fanfare by both the gaming press and gamers alike.
- Remember Me: With mixed reviews but a decent female lead. Sold poorly but still constituted a wide scale home console and PC release.
- Bayonetta Two: A kick-ass and iconic female lead that paradoxically gets many to grab a torch and pitch-fork. As I’ve said before, an exceptional game.
- Portal 2: Chell is woman, for what little difference that makes to the game; Portal is a very high profile game from a very well-known developer with a single human character. And it’s a female.
- Lollipop Chainsaw: Yes, this was a major release and a majorly underrated game. Fun, silly and with a mad sense of humour.
Now many in the “games are sexist” camp will argue they don’t like some of these female protagonists, but their preference are immaterial in the free market. To say “that example does not count because I don’t like it” is shifting the goal posts and injecting a subjective qualifier that lets you dismiss evidence. Those five examples off the top of my head are games that saw a wide release and had a high budget that also have a strong solo female lead character. The list for games in which you have gender choices is pretty long too: everything from the Dragon Age series, the Saints Row series, to the Elder Scrolls series. There are plenty of games with an ensemble cast that give equal footing to female characters as well, like Borderlands. These are only touching on the upper tier of games publishing. The problem of caution I mentioned earlier didn’t prevent the last five years from having a large amount of games with female leads, female cast members and a huge amount of games with a choice of female characters that have come from the more independently developed arena.
Some people’s assumptions are also predicated on the notion that women can only relate to female characters. This doesn’t seem to be the case and what research there is out there looks to point to there being little preference to lead character gender, as people playing video games tend to project themselves onto a game’s characters. The notion that female NPCs have “no agency” is also a gross misunderstanding; NPCs often get more development and are more relatable than lead characters (see: Elizabeth from Bioshock: Infinite). They can be more fleshed out as characters because we are not meant to be projecting ourselves onto them. I’m sure most people who play video games as a hobby could tell you the effect of seeing yourself as the main character, that’s why so many main characters are blank slates and why I think the fierce debate about “female leads” is moot. We would be here all day talking about how many games have decent female NPCs or side characters. If the main character all but disappears after the insertion of yourself, apart from in non-gameplay sections, how is it any different than being an NPC?
So why do we have so many journalists running around like headless chickens telling us the sky is falling because there are too few female protagonists in games? There have certainly been less in recent history, but as I’ve said, that is out of laziness and financial paranoia. Do you really want to get more female characters in games and on the front of video games cases? Prove they sell well. Put your money where your mouth is and do some real leg-work instead of bitching about it. Making games is a business. Attacking it purely from a moralistic, sex-negative, perspective will get you nowhere. It’s hard for companies to know what you want instinctually. They know what you don’t want when you swiftly grab your pitch-forks in the next “think of the women” moral panic that comes up, but that offers no constructive points to work with. If I worked as a developer, I wouldn’t have a clue what the gaming press was shrieking for aside from the fact that if I do decide to create a female character, I’m walking on egg-shells when it comes to my execution. There is an army of writers out there just waiting to twist your words into the next “women are too hard to animate” non-scandal that will whip their readers into a righteous frenzy. There are people like Jason “Lolicon Fantasy” Schrier who will gleefully attack you as a “14 year old boy” for having exaggerated character designs.
This idea of negative sexualisation is predicated on the idea that women themselves don’t enjoy the characters and aesthetics that have been branded sexist or misogynistic by some. Women have breasts. Some women have large breasts. I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable. Do I think there is an overly large percentage of games like this? Yes, actually, I do. The key is breeding variety. You shouldn’t demand someone else shrink to make you feel tall and you shouldn’t try to grow one market at cost of another. There is still vast untapped growth in the video games market and if you think you can sell to an untapped demographic… then go for it. Romantic comedies do not insist that action movies stop existing to be economically viable. There will always be a market for puerile big bouncing titties. That’s the way it should be but that, by no means, should be the only aesthetic out there. There is room for all kinds of female design; this isn’t a zero sum game. You can make female characters that look however you want. Although judging by the demure sexless vision some have for female characters, you might have to go back to more puritanical times to find an audience for them.
Now we get onto the other issue that has become separated from reality. There is much hand-wringing over “women in the industry” and loud trumpeting of how unwelcoming game development and the tech industry is to women. But if you actually talk to these women, you will find a different sentiment. A useful but often ignored article on the subject was written by Gabrielle Toledano, Executive Vice President and Chief Talent Officer for Electronic Arts. She wrote an impassioned plea in 2013 in Forbes:
"Cast aside the preconceptions, and look for the opportunities and places to make an impact. And I can tell you first-hand that in the video game industry women are not just welcome, we are necessary and we are equal."
Here is a female executive for one of the biggest AAA developers and publishers laying bare the myth of “rampant sexism and misogyny” as being just that, a myth. Pure scaremongering. As Gabrielle says, the lack of female developers reflects the general lack of female candidates. Equality in employment laws means you take the best candidate for the job regardless of gender. These employment polices can’t have bias either way by law.
So those asking for a “50/50” gender representation in all areas of development (an arbitrary and meaningless quota in of itself) are really asking for a magical overhaul of the entire jobs market or to tip the scales in favour of female candidates. Equality of opportunity is all you can ever expect in a fair and equal system. You’ve got a senior female executive in one of the biggest video game companies in the world telling you this. When is it going to sink in for some people?
If she had put out that article this week, I guarantee she would be pilloried far and wide in the gaming press for excusing sexism. She might have even been accused of “having a GamerGate opinion” and thus accused of “supporting terrorism”. This is the rhetoric we see in the games press; they would rather accuse people of being terrorists than admit that maybe, just maybe, the larger gaming community and game developers out there are welcoming and open to women, even above and beyond most other industries. This wall of noise about how some kind of “anti-diversity” conspiracy in the gaming world is being ramped up, but EA themselves have been named one of the best places to work by the Human Rights Campaign, winning a distinction given to businesses based on their “corporate policies and practices pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees.” This isn’t just for game developers or the tech sector. This is an award that considers all large business and EA came out as one of the top. For three years in a row. Three years. EA is much maligned for some of its anti-consumer market choices but its pro-female and pro-LGBT credentials seem to be one of the things they don’t have a problem with. So where exactly is this “anti-diversity” conspiracy in the games industry we keep hearing about? Well, it doesn’t seem to be coming from AAA developers like EA, as many indie developers and certain games media outlets keep trying to suggest to us. It certainly isn’t coming from the coastal indie scene or industry bodies, who seem to have an almost pathological fixation on talking about race, sexuality and gender diversity. Where is conspiracy? Can anyone show me? Could it be that this entire problem was trumped up by people who have an interest in stirring up emotional stories for their readers or potential backers?
So AAA developers are pro-diversity, gamers are pro-diversity, the indie devs are obsessively pro-diversity and the gaming press takes every opportunity it can to blare on about needing “better representation.” In seeming desperation, elements of the press and indie “scene” have tried to accuse the gaming community of being somehow anti-woman. This has been met with the expected reaction of “…u wot mate?” For an industry to accuse its readers and consumers of somehow being the basis of an anti-woman conspiracy is lunacy. Nowhere was this more clear than in the World of Warcraft forums in the wake of Blizzards slight gaf, helped along by the Doritos pope himself Geoff Keighley. Many of the threads were sadly deleted, but the general reaction from a great many female WoW players is that they had been a part of the MMO community for many years with little or no experience of feeling like a second class gamer. I’ve played WoW. My friends mum got me into it. The community is diverse; most MMO communities have a very strong female contingent. If you’re trying to get female gamers to tell you the gaming community is some kind of “boys club” you’re going to be listening to a minority of voices telling you exactly what you want to hear. Go and ask most female gamers how they feel. Why doesn’t the press do that more?
You wouldn’t know any of this by reading modern games journalism. The “women issue” has revealed that gaming publications are incapable of putting critical thought over outrage and clicks. Incapable of fostering a debate and incapable of facing up to reality over ideology. They continue to push their misinformation to drive a wedge in the gaming community; making their base of support smaller and smaller until they turn off all gamers, male and female alike. You wouldn’t even think game developers had female executives from the way the press bangs on about this “recent” crusade to get women into games. Naked self-publicists would like you to forget the legacy and contribution of women to the games industry throughout the decades. They disrespect that lineage for the sake of their own financial and political expediency. In order to do this, one has to be deaf and blind to reality. They would rather do this than acknowledge the gaming community and development world is welcoming to women and female talent, and that our hobby is home to one of the most forward thinking and diverse groups of people on the face of the Earth. Massive game publishers win awards for how they handle their employees and communities far and wide have been home to women for decades. This is the reality of the games industry and its community: strident, fierce, battered by economic turbulence and beset by many problems but never letting those define and mire them.
The games industry and community isn’t perfect but the warped image put forward in the dying cries of the gaming press — as they slide into their inevitable and welcome irrelevancy — are gross distortions of reality meant to exploit and profit from an imaginary monster and in the process drag the reputation of the games industry and community through the dirt for their own gain.
Continued in Part 4: The Mobile Menace
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