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5 Ways To Make Computer and Video Games More Gender Inclusive

8 May

Here I present a short ‘wish’ list, stemming from my recent gaming experiences as well as trawls through the internet, of just a handful of ways to present a more equal gender experience within the medium.

1)
Female ‘stock’, ‘cannon fodder’ or ‘grunt’ characters. By this I mean, un-named female characters, as the over abundant enemy than needs to be vanquished to progress. A good discussion of this can be found here.

I recently had the pleasure of playing through both Uncharted games, but one thing I kept thinking was ‘why are there no female pirates/mercenaries’? In Drake’s Fortune, the stock bad guy are new-school pirates. This doesn’t seem like a career with particularly gendered entrance criteria, especially in what is essentially fantasy. In Among Thieves, the stock bad guys are some unnamed PMC. Fair enough most armies in the world (private or not) only allow men as infantry, Israel being a notable exception. However, Chloe Frazer, a highly capable woman on a par with the protagonist Nathan Drake, has dealings with the PMC, and is treated as an equal or superior within their ranks. Thus it is not too much of a stretch to imagine the possibility of other female soldiers there too.

Not a job for women it seems...

[edit: It has just occurred to me that ‘bad guy’ is gendered language in itself, and highlights just how innately sexist much common parlance is… I will endeavour to stop using it]

2)
More named female characters, preferably playable, and especially so if there is a cast of multiple playable characters. For example, if there are 10 playable human characters in a JRPG, 5 of them should be women, give or take. That is just about the population balance in real life (women have a slight edge), so it should translate into media depicting human experience in one way or another.

A good example of how not to do this would be Final Fantasy VII. Of the 9 playable characters, only three are women. Of those, one dies to serve as a plot development for the main character (Aeris), another is entirely optional (Yuffie), and the third is most remembered for her ample bosom (Tifa).

Entirely optional

3)
I would like to see less shameless pandering to the ‘male gaze’. I am talking about this. I’m not saying this has no place in the medium, just not as the default. Either that, or balance it out with equally abundant crotch shots too. Straight male sexuality is not the only standard, nor is it necessarily as obvious and tasteless as it is too often assumed. Women’s sexuality just as much needs to be represented in popular culture and the digital arts, and I believe the medium can only benefit from it.

So less ‘realistic’ breast physics:

Independently animated

Until we get an independent physics engines for these:

Outrageous!

4)
A broader set of traits and characteristics for female characters to be built upon and judged by. So far we generally have a scale that ranges from ‘sex object in need of rescue’ all the way to ‘sex object who kicks ass’.

   

In need of rescue

Kicks ass

A quick check-list of more positive features might look something like this:

  • Believability
  • 3 Dimensional Personalities
  • Sense of Humour
  • Individual Motivations
  • Capability
  • Self Reliance
  • Expertise
  • Athleticism
  • Political
  • Intelligence
  • Independence
  • …and sure, attractiveness, but not sexualisation

Also note that none of these are gendered traits/descriptions. What I am trying to say I think is that writers should aim, first and foremost, to created decent (or painfully flawed) human beings, rather than ‘women’ or ‘men’.

5)
Finally, I would like to see greater integration of gay and transgender characters. Sexuality needn’t be considered a universally touchy subject in computer and video games as a medium of expression. Cinema as proven that exploration of LGBT issues can both sell and be critically acclaimed, without being patronising.

Whilst I am not saying there need to be gay or trans characters in every game about people, LGBT issues certainly shouldn’t be a) unilaterally avoided or b) subject to gross stereotypes.
I have recently been enjoying playing through Persona 4, and it is hands-down just a better JRPG than most. Not because of its battle system, not because of its story, but  because of its diverse and believable characters, a number of whom struggle with both gender and sexuality (and maybe because of  its constant interaction with Jungian Analytical Psychology).

[See the Extra Credits video on this for a much better discussion than my own.]

How about you? What would you like to see included/removed from game design to make it more gender inclusive? Comments below…

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Characters Done Well: Shale

11 Apr

First up in a series on well written and designed characters in video games (from a gender perspective):  Shale from Dragon Age: Origins.

[Spoilers Below]

Perhaps the most interesting recruitable party member from Dragon Age : Origins was, for me, the Dwarven war golem Shale. From a design perspective it is the most ‘different’ looking, or the most ‘monstrous’, which separates it from the mostly humanoid remainder of the party.  Shale also has fairly  interesting gameplay mechanics, being able to fill a wide variety of roles depending on talent specialisation.  Shale’s personal narrative was one of the more immediately engaging, and it’s dialogue was some of the more obviously humorous and least hammy.

Shale, as a character, also gently subverts audience preconceptions about gender, and delivers a satisfying ‘big reveal’ moment, that in many ways serves to highlight the audience’s internalised preconceptions about gender.

Shale, you see, is/was a woman.

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BOOBS or: Did a Woman Really Write This?

27 Mar

Ivy Valentine (SoulCalibur)

Whilst browsing G4TV, I must have been  deluded to think that when I chose to click the featured link to an article with the promising title of ‘Boobs in Video Games‘, I would be presented with an opinion piece with a positive message.

Here was me, thinking this might be some kind of critique of the wholly unrealistic portrayal of female bodies in video games. I was hoping to be shown characters whose breasts where disproportionately large, perfectly shaped and/or barely covered, and subsequently told that this was BAD or at least unrealistic. Not so. The author revels in the objectification of women.

A particularly annoying segment:

“For example, when I questioned why gamers seemed to generally prefer Elena Fisher of Uncharted’s puppies over Chloe Frazer’s, they cited reasons like: “She doesn’t have whore boobs,” and “Chloe’s breasts are too slutty — we prefer the subtlety of Elena’s knockers.””

The author, Sherilynn Macale, is a woman. Shouldn’t she take at least some sort of offense to breasts being called ‘slutty’ or ‘whore boobs’? Does she have an opinion on those statements at all? Of course not, because that kind of stuff is fine for women to say in 2011, as it has been for all too long.

'Whore Boobs'

Sherilynn “Cheri” Macale is then, what Ariel Levy might call, a ‘Female Chauvinist Pig‘.

Ms Macale, on her own blog, presents herself  not only as ‘freelance writing’, but also as ‘boy bullying’. Boy bullying? Really? A quick scan of her twitter, and of her portfolio page, shows us instead that Cheri is adept at objectifying herself. Wearing skin-tight trousers and a tiny open top, she poses stretched out across super cars; imagery that is clearly made to gratify the straight male demographic. Where is the boy bullying in that?

'Subtle Knockers'

As a woman with the privilege to write for a widely circulated online publication such as G4TV, Ms Macale just should not be reinforcing such primitive,  gratuitous  depictions of women, especially when body image is such an important issue for both women and men, more than ever. Sating the obvious, this can be seen in the proliferation of cosmetic surgery (with 1/4 women now having considered surgery),¹ eating disorders (anorexia was barely heard of a century ago),² and all the rest. And whilst I appreciate that men are portrayed physically unrealistically in video games (i.e. the all to common ‘macho man’ image), there are certainly instances where they are not, and these are far more common than with female characters. A good example of a male character with a realistic physique is Otacon from the Metal Gear Solid series.

Presenting the ideal woman in games as one with impossibly large breasts ALONGSIDE an impossibly slim waistline, is damaging in a number of ways. Firstly, it presents to women who play games that this is the idealised version of themselves, and is the body image that men are singularly attracted to. But more importantly perhaps, seeing as though that straight men are still the ‘main demographic’, is that it gives men unreal expectations of what to expect from women, just as much as the porn industry does, just as magazines do, just as advertising does ad infinitum. I am not saying video games are the cause of unrealistic conceptions of body image, but they certainly have their part to play.

Whilst I understand that Sherilynn Macale is not a games developer, and thus has no direct control over the portrayal of women in video games, she could AT LEAST have something negative to say about the objectification of her sex in the industry she obviously cares about. Even a modicum of social responsibility would be appreciated, so that women no longer have to either a) act like/ participate in heterosexual male cultures or b) overtly objectify themselves, to gain a degree of respect from men. If you are a female games journalist, it should be OK to act like one.

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Trenched…for REAL men

23 Mar

Why oh why has Double Fine chosen to advertise it’s latest game in the ‘Amnesia Fortnights’ series, Trenched,  like so?

The tag line reads: “Turn no-man’s land, into real mans land”.

‘Real man’s land’. Really?

Four words. Four words is all it takes and immediately women, as well as men put off by the macho-man image, are forced to come to the conclusion that this just might not be the game for them. It is also  indicative of too much advertising these days (not that it was different before!), that still insists on assuming a primarily straight, male audience, and a male audience that buys into normative modes of masculinity.

Women play games, there is no avoiding this fact. Surely the people that make games should be trying to reach an audience as broad as possible, including women, and not using brute force advertising to alienate a significant chunk of it?

Kotaku is keen to insist that Trenched is ‘a game that seems to have everything going for it‘. Everything except gender inclusivity, perhaps?

From a quick scan of the Double Fine studio website, I determined that at least 9 women, as well a number of infants and dogs work on the team (see  ‘What is Double Fine‘ ). Surely these women, having already faced a number of challenges disproportionate to their gender to even get into the industry, would have some problem with the use of advertising that excludes them as potential consumers to games that they actually had a hand in creating!

Perhaps I am being too fussy? Perhaps the market for third-person tower-defense games released exclusively on XBLA  is wholly male, and thus makes it  a very effective piece of advertising? Perhaps, but more likely it is the responsibility of those in a position of authorship to promote inclusivity. When we get down to it, change can only ever come from inside the industry, despite pressures placed upon it externally.

This is especially disappointing considering the studio is Double Fine, previously responsible for innovative and original games like Psychonauts and more recently Stacking. In particular, Tim Schafer, founder and owner of Double Fine Productions, has been responsible for progressive female characters such as Governor Elaine Marley (The Secret of Monkey Island) and Lili Zanotto (Psychonauts) in the past.

Although it is yet to be seen whether or not Trenched will include female characters for play, women don’t quite fit into the role of ‘real men’, so I would imagine it unlikely.

How about you? Does advertising like this enrage you as a man/woman? Or are you willing to just let this slide because it is ‘just how it is’? Perhaps it didn’t even cross your mind?

Comments and discussion welcomed.

[Trenched is set for release sometime in  2011, exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade]