Are you familiar with Choice of Games? If not, you should be; they make light choose-your-own-adventure style interactive fiction for web browser and mobile device. It's a fun and timely concept, and I aspire to write a ChoiceScript game as my next indie personal project. (Full disclosure: One of the team members, Dan Fabulich, is an old friend of mine and a fellow Cloudmakers moderator.)
Thus far they've only done a couple of games in-house. In Choice of the Dragon, you get to live a titular life of treasure-hoarding and wizard-eating; in Choice of Broadsides, you're a young commanding officer aboard a naval vessel.
Their approach to gender in their games is very, very interesting; in Choice of Broadsides, they essentially created two separate versions of the game -- one with a traditional patriarchal structure for men to play, and one with a gender-flipped matriarchal society for women. It's well-intentioned, to be sure, but the idea ultimately leaves me a little uneasy.
I'm Not a Man But I Play One on Xbox
Here's the thing; in Choice of Broadsides, the male half of the game happens in... let's face it, in the real world, or in an historical variant thereof. The female universe is fictional. Never existed, never will. So the woman's version becomes a work of fantasy rather than historic fiction right off the bat. But more, swapping the gender roles and power dynamics to put the female in the more powerful position is... well, in a way, it's denying me a legitimate female experience in that world. This makes me sad.
A lot of games -- I am looking at you, Fable 2 -- give you the choice of playing as a female character in the same exact world. But that choice is basically a choice of avatar, and for the most part, the world doesn't react to your female-ness in any meaningful sense. You might as well be a man with breasts strapped on.
You may all be tired of hearing me talk about Dragon Age by now, but one of the things I found so captivating about that game was the overt sexism of some characters. It was incredibly satisfying to me to have a character take a dismissive attitude of me in the game, because I was a woman -- as in real life -- and have the power in the game to rise above it and prove them wrong, in a way I don't always have the courage or capacity to do in real life.
It bears noting that historical romance is a very popular genre. I speculate that part of the reason is the underlying power dynamic, where a woman in a position of relatively little social power nonetheless manages to get her heart's desire in the end. This is a very powerful fantasy.
Socially Just Fiction
Well then, what's the right way to do it? There are three basic approaches to dealing with sexism in fiction.
1. Telling your story in a sexism-free, utopian society.
2. Mirroring the gender-soaked world we live in.
3. The novel Choice of Games approach of reversing gender roles.
Each of these has a terrible disadvantage. The utopian society won't feel true and can't address difficult issues; mirroring our world supports the notion that our current state of gender affairs is just how things are, and how they will be. And reversing gender roles can ultimately leave you with a series of games where you never really get the experience of playing as a woman, because the world never really lets you be a woman; it lets you be a man with some hand-waving around babies and pronouns.
It's not easy to be an activist and put yourself on the hook to speak out when you find injustice. But as difficult as that is, it's a lot harder to try to write good interactive content when you're trying to do the right thing, because there is literally no decision you can make that will leave you free of criticism -- well, short of just not making anything at all. And who wants that?
Walk a Mile in Someone Else's Shoes
There's a compelling counter-example to my criticism in the upcoming Choice game, Choice of the Consort. As I understand it, the default experience of the new game is actually the woman's experience, specifically as a woman who has attracted the attention of a philandering king. And so the flipped universe is the reverse of the Choice of Broadsides situation -- men are being placed in the shoes of the less-powerful sex.
It definitely takes the tooth out of a lot of my criticism, because creating games where the initial or intended play experience is that of both genders is way less problematic than creating games where the default is always for men. Does the switch rob the men of the experience of playing as a man? Yeah, kind of. But at least both genders are getting the shaft in equal measures.
I find that far more interesting than building a matriarchal navy, in terms of ingenuity and ambition. As with the controversial FPS Hey, Baby, by putting a man in a woman's shoes and stripping him of gender privilege, it may shed light on something he never thought of that way before. Maybe it'll even subtly change a few hearts and minds against casual sexism. Stranger things have happened.
And finally: Kudos to Choice of Games for taking steps to address gender concerns in the first place. Indeed, they go a mile further, and are working hard to account for gay relationships, as well, which require additional layers of thought and world-building in their historical settings.
And all criticism aside, every time we have this conversation, it helps a little more, and we all get a little better. I'm glad they're out there and taking this stuff seriously.