A Matter of Perspective

(or, When Did Game Publishers Forget That Women Are People Too?)

I’ll start off by admitting that I have a massive backlog of articles and videos in my browser tabs and bookmarks that make great, salient points about sexism and video games.  I’ll probably write about or link to many of them, old and new, over time, because this is something that matters to me very much.  Today, I want to talk about this:

 

Long ago, I worked my very first job as a sales associate at an EB Games.  One day, a guy came in looking for recommendations.  He didn’t seem entirely pleased that I was the only one available to help him, but he asked anyway.  At that time, I had just finished playing Beyond Good & Evil: to this day one of my favorite games and one for which I am still waiting on a long-promised sequel.  I began describing the game as I went to find its case on the shelves, saying, “You play as a photographer who is helping to uncover a military conspiracy.  A large part of the gameplay is stealth-based, but there is combat and strategy and even racing as well.”  However, by this time I had reached the case and handed it to the young man.  He immediately interrupted with, “Whoa, wait … is this a girl game?”

I wanted to say, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” but I was a consummate professional, so instead I replied with, “The main character is female, if that’s what you’re asking.  Other than that, there’s nothing inherently girly about it.”  He just said, “Never mind,” and wandered off without so much as a “Thanks for your time.”  As I’m sure you’ve gathered, it was memorably irksome.

I knew that there has always been a degree of resistance against featuring strong, complex, fully-developed and humanized female characters in games, but the statements highlighted in this video show a degree of misogynistic immaturity that I find deeply disturbing.  This isn’t to say the sentiment is universal by any means.  There are a lot of good people out there making and talking about games, promoting women’s equality both as gamers and as game characters.  Unfortunately, many of the clueless folks seem to have meandered their way up to the top rungs of the corporate ladders, controlling the publishing titans that determine whether or not many games ever see the light of day.  That is not ok.  When the most powerful voices in game publishing are motivated by money, and they believe that money comes in the form of testosterone-laden protagonists and women as sex objects, there’s a problem.

As a lady gamer, I’m completely accustomed to playing through male avatars in my games.  With precious few admirable female protagonists taking lead roles (Jade from Beyond Good & Evil being one of them) and only slightly more games giving you the option of making your character female if you really really have to (Skyrim included, as my deft Bosmeri archer lass can attest to), sometimes there’s not really much choice.  Playing as a male character who interacts with female love interests has never made me uncomfortable or insecure, either, unless she’s being thrown at me like a hunk of meat.  In fact, if that female is also a strong, developed, or otherwise likable character, I can appreciate why the male character might be drawn to her, and I want to see them happily together.  I don’t understand why it would be the expectation that a reasonable male with even the slightest bit of maturity could get freaked out by playing as a female who likes men.  How do the game publishers so grossly underestimate the cognitive and emotional capacities of their audience?

Yes, there are bad examples out there, as there are in any sub-group of humanity.  But I know a lot of men who are able to appreciate a character and a story as just that without feeling the need to be pandered to with manly avatars and fan service.  To say that making a man play as a female character would make him feel “weird” is to imply that he has such a fragile ego stretching thin over his vast chasm of personal insecurities that to call his masculinity into question in any way could cause him to implode into an inconsolable fit of identity crisis, and more often than not, this is not the case.  The injustice and insult being committed here is not just to women, but to men as well.  No one comes out of this situation looking good.

The good news is that things are always slowly getting better, one baby step at a time (even when some jerk comes along to bring us two steps back).  More women are playing, talking about, and working to develop games than in the past, and more people love and care about games enough to push them to be better than they were.  Sexism in games will probably never go away entirely, but one day it could be the exception rather than the norm.  While playing Skyrim as a female, I encountered a woman in Whiterun who told me, “It’s not easy being a woman in Skyrim, I know. But stay strong, men will come to respect you, and maybe even fear you.”  It’s a little thing, that inconsequential line of dialogue, but it keeps me hopeful.  We will stay strong, and we will be respected, and that will show in the medium we love.

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Strong Female Character: Round 2!

(or, The Visual Representation of the Warrior Woman)

Despite what I said about strong female characters being too focused on the warrior woman, I am here today to focus on … the warrior women!

Particularly their visual representation, because, you know …

Source: http://womenfighters.tumblr.com/post/43562502843/lady-armor-exposed

It is well known that tough ladies in any genre can suffer from a ridiculous visual representation.  Fantasy warriors get dolled up in metal bikinis, science fiction has a habit of churning out sexy alien lasses, superheroines fight evil in revealing, skintight apparel that would barely stay on while walking down the street, much less brawling with baddies, and even spies and detectives somehow find themselves in stiletto heels at most inconvenient times.  Historically, this is a result of men working in male-dominated industries marketing toward a male-dominated audience, and though the demographics are shifting, old habits die hard.  But there are plenty of places around the internet that go into depth on that score, so I’m not going to ramble on too much here.

One major complaint against some of the more outrageous designs is in terms of practicality.  Any lady cosplayer can tell you that things like heels, patent leather, corsets, and so on may look cool, but they can be a pain to wear and usually end up being very limiting to your mobility.  I can say from experience that even trying to tie your shoes while in a steel-boned corset can be a frustrating and laborious process (that is very fun to watch, apparently), and it’s impossible to run at full speed wearing pencil-thin 4″ heels.  And, needless to say, when it comes to stopping bullets or blades, steel or Kevlar does a much better job than Spandex or bare flesh.

The other complaint is sexualization and objectification, another thing lady cosplayers know well.  Films and comic books are especially guilty of presenting gratuitous cleavage, near-nudity, and other sexualized representations of women, often when male characters are not treated the same way.  Often times, this is pandering to a male demographic, but sometimes it’s just a matter of taking a cool-looking design a step too far.

The problem in finding a solution is that there are so many factors to balance.  When I go to choose an outfit in the morning, I have to think of what the weather is like, where I’ll be going and what is considered appropriate for that environment, what will be most comfortable for the tasks I’m going to engage in, whether I’m in a mood to be pretty, or cute, or professional, or bad-ass – the list goes on.  Different ladies (and men too) have different motivations for the attire they choose each day, but there is always a thought process, even if it’s as simple as, “I’m not leaving the house today, so I’m not going to wear pants.”  The (often but not always male) artists and designers who give visual form to the many warrior women of fiction don’t usually seem to take the approach of thinking from the character’s point of view about what they might wear.  Rather, they take a purely aesthetic approach, designing based on what looks good to them, fits their overall style, and best complements (or exposes) the female form.  The aesthetics do matter, as evidenced when an artist who recently did a series of practical superheroine costume redesigns as an exercise got backlash for the designs being unattractive and frumpy, but they need to be tempered with a little sense.

I think the most important factor about the visual representation of a warrior woman (or any female character) is whether or not she would realistically approve of the attire.  If the character in question is some lusty, sexually-liberated femme fatale, then she’s probably going to want to show a little skin whenever possible, but if she’s a strong-willed peasant woman trying to defend her village from marauders, she’s probably going to want to get as much protection as she can using what’s available to her.  It is possible to have a character look amazing and still dress suitably to face her story’s conflict.  Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor does a great job of gathering images of practical and/or historically accurate armors as designed for or worn by women, and other resources for inspiration are endless.  An artists needs to think of the character’s personality, what kinds of resources she has, what her society considers appropriate and whether or not she would agree, who she fights, how she fights, whether or not she would dress in some kind of standard uniform or style, whether she is more stylish or more practical, and so on.  Readers and viewers of genre fiction are always willing to engage in some suspension of disbelief, so as long as you are faithful to the character, and you are being honest with yourself about being faithful to your character, you’re probably on the right track.

On Love

(or, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?  No, for I Spent It Indoors Playing Video Games.)

It’s no secret that I enjoy my video games.  But for me, many games inspire something greater than enjoyment.  They inspire love.  Not a creepy kind of love, but the kind that is moved by beauty and virtues to admire from afar, like some sort of gaming Don Quixote.  There is something very special about the artistry and storytelling of games, and when done well, it’s completely moving!

I recently started playing Skyrim.  Yes, I know, that came out a while ago.  I’m almost constantly broke, so I almost never get a game when it comes out.  Needless to say, by the time I got my hands on this title and started playing it, people seemed to have formulated all the opinions they were going to form about it and slathered them all over the internet.  I came to expect something vast and epic, though perhaps lacking some emotional depth.  After a slow start and some fumbling with the controls (first-person can be my utter nemesis), I was on my way.  That first majestic vista you encounter after leaving the caves; that breathtaking view I’d heard so much about?  It didn’t do much for me, and at that point, I began to wonder if this game was simply overhyped to the point where I could never fully enjoy it.  I spent a couple game days running around on beginner errands, for some reason perpetually drowning in fog and rain, and I was almost ready to call it quits.  Then suddenly, one evening as I was walking into town, the sun set, the moons rose, the sky cleared until it was scintillatingly sharp and bright, and a magnificent aurora borealis struck out across the sky.  The scene took my breath away, and I just stood there for a moment, looking up.  It happened so suddenly and without warning, and somehow it conveyed to me all the depth and vastness of this world I was about to explore.  That was the moment I fell in love.

oooh … pretty …

It got me thinking about what moments like that made me fall in love with other games.  Was it the first time I stood before the Great Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time?  In Bastion, was it the first time I touched the ashen figure of an old friend and watched him crumble to dust?  Did Final Fantasy VII have me by the opening cutscene?  It was this and more, absolutely, but there is always that first moment.  Something beautiful or tragic or humbling takes you, and you lose yourself in the moment.  Maybe it’s something you want to explore, or something you want to protect.  Maybe it’s something you want to avenge.  Or, maybe it’s something you just want to sit and absorb into the recesses of your memory.  Whatever the scenario, games present it to you like no other media can, and that is why I love them.