(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.