Gender in Gaming

Games Belong to Me

I'm a gamer. I also happen to be a woman and a feminist. And I am angry.

A bunch of frightened little boys led by a bitter ex-boyfriend have created this thing called #GamerGate. I haven't addressed it here directly before, though we've spoken about it on CulturesCast, mainly because I was afraid the filth would splash over onto me. And it couldn't keep up, I thought. The whole thing will blow over. It would be enough, I thought, to continue quietly playing and making my games; living well is the best revenge.

But that's a decision rooted in fear, and that's exactly what those frightened little boys are angling for. Meanwhile, game developers are being harassed, games journalists and critics are being harassed, and in the latest, these trolls somehow persuaded a major advertiser to pull a campaign from one of my favorite industry publications.

I'm not afraid anymore. I'm furious. I will not be silent.

Fuck those guys. They're not gamers. You know who's a gamer? I am.

Games are mine. I've earned them through trigger blisters and sleep deprivation, through screen headaches and corrupt save files and knowing the cheat codes but not using them. Games are mine, and they have always been mine.

Zaxxon is mine, and BC Quest for Tires, Centipede, Space Invaders. Joust is mine, and the Dragonriders of Pern strategy game that nobody else seems to remember ever existed. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? is mine, earned in notes about currency made on scrap paper in a room lit only by screen glow long after I should have been asleep.

Infocom is mine, from my first whispering taste of Zork to Infidel and Wishbringer and Trinity, a game whose haunting premise is with me to this day.  I earned Infocom in all the years I spent all my allowance on their games -- and then waited eight to twelve weeks for international delivery to the Philippine Islands. Do you know how long twelve weeks are when you're eleven years old?

Infocom gave me Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Moonmist, Plundered Hearts -- games that even then catered to a female audience. Women have always played. We have always been here.

Games are mine from the lunchtimes spent staying in the geometry room playing Spy Hunter instead of going outside. Archon is mine. Wing Commander is mine. Nethack is mine, from a thousand corpses eaten and sinks kicked to the bottom of the pit where I found my own bones... twice over.

Ultima is mine, every damn one of them, even the last one when it was so bugged you couldn't find Shamino and so couldn't win. EverQuest is mine, and The Sims. Zelda is mine, and Ocarina of Time is my Zelda. Samorost is mine, and Boomshine, and Grow games. Katamari Damacy is mine. Phoenix Wright is mine. Kingdom of Loathing is mine.

Farmville is mine from the intricate spreadsheets establishing quickest time-to-mastery and the 4am wakeups to harvest a limited-time crop.

Glitch was mine, and always will be in my heart. May it be so again.

Dragon Age is mine, and so is Mass Effect. Journey is mine. So are Railroad Tycoon, World of Goo, and dozens of Big Fish hidden object games. It should go without saying that I own the hell out of Candy Crush, too.

Games are mine from the Space Invaders t-shirt I made myself to wear to E3, all the way to the Zelda cross-stitch map I swear I'll finish one day.

Games are mine because of the games I've made, games that have always pursued a social justice agenda, from Perplex City and our quiet matter-of-fact gay marriages back in 2006, all the way to that game I made called America 2049 that is explicitly and comprehensively about social justice and oppression.

When I speak about representation of women in games, I am no outsider agitating for changes that would ruin things for core gamers. I am a core gamer, and I am acting to shape an art form I love to promote a world I want to live in.

And when these frightened little boys growl and threaten that feminists are ruining games, what they do not understand is that they are attacking me in my place of strength. They cannot take something away from me, because it is not theirs to take.

Games belong to me. They have always belonged to me. And they always will.

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Preliminary Thoughts on Skyrim

...having played only the tutorial level:

  • The tutorial really blows. It tells you "press this stick to move," and then says "head to the keep" without ever telling you how to work out where the keep is.
  • And working out how to change your character's gender is extremely non-intuitive. I was nearly convinced it wasn't even an option before I stumbled on it; I only persisted because I was sure there would have been massive feminist outrage if it weren't an available choice.
  • The game tells you "press this button to attack," but doesn't walk you through any other element of combat. Does it matter if my back is to my enemy? Or how far away I am? Can I get some kind of warning when I'm about to die? Note that I actually died in the tutorial trying to figure this stuff out. And I am not exactly new to the console RPG, either.
  • The camera also blows. It doesn't let you do a full-circle; there's an arbitrary stop in, presumably, the back of your head. Extremely annoying.
  • Having the camera bob up and down when the character is walking over rocky terrain is unpleasantly disorienting.
  • Things got much better when I accidentally switched away from the straight first-person view. Wish I knew how to do that on purpose.
  • Was that one dude using two voices and two accents, or... something? I feel like something weird was going on with him.
  • The lockpicking minigame is fun.

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Choice of Gender Roles

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. 

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ARGfest 2010 Epilogue

So there was this thing last week, and I went to it. I even gave a talk! For those of you interested, there is video of Beyond the Brunette (ARGfest 2010 edition), recorded by the lovely Lauren Soffer, and including the Q&A afterward:



This is a shorter, more ARG-focused version of the talk I delivered at SXSW this year. If you'd like the whole thing, the slides plus notes are up on Slideshare, or you can listen to the audio of the SXSW talk cut in with the slides on Vimeo.

It was a great audience, and I think what I had to say really resonated. I got a lot of feedback from people who were happy that I spoke so early, because every single time a girl in distress came up for the rest of the conference -- and it came up in more sessions than not -- it got a chuckle and reinforced my point. Though I have a sinking feeling that everyone is going to be calling me "cupcake" for the rest of my career.

ARGfest was amazing all around, though, for reasons having nothing to do with me -- the sessions and attendees were absolutely perfect. I couldn't have dreamed up a better event if they'd put me in charge. Big, big thanks go to the organizing committee for their hard work and excellent taste.

Thank you, too, to everyone who hoisted a mai tai and rocked out to Tongo Hiti with me, or who spoke candidly about how the heck to earn a living, and extra-special super mad props go to Jonathan Waite (he knows why). Man, I love you guys so much. Never leave me!

After ARGfest every year, I say, "Wow, that was great! But given the time and money... I don't know if I'm going to make it next year." This time, I'm not saying that. There is no way I would skip ARGfest next year. Not after this year. 

I'll see you there, too, right?

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Beyond the Brunette Online

I've put my slides up from SXSWi 2010 for my talk, ARGs and Women: Moving Beyond the Hot Brunette. I'm not embedding it here, however, because the slides are pretty worthless without my presentation notes, and I haven't worked out a way to get show the slides to display in the way I'd prefer. It's harder than it needs to be because I have embedded video, and Keynote's cutting off a bunch of pie charts when I export to PDF. Grrr. At any rate, I highly recommend you be sure to click on the "Notes on slide 1" tab before you start going through the show.

I do believe SXSW is planning to put up the audio of my actual talk at some point, and when that happens I'll try to put the slides and audio together in a single, perfect show. Until then, we'll all have to settle.

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