Archives for posts with tag: Sexism in Gaming

Today we have another Guest Editorial from writer Franki Webb, as she relives some of her experiences as a female gamer.

The Donkey Kong theme was blaring through the house as I returned home from primary school; sure thing, the Super Nintendo was on. My brother had just completed a level as I entered the bedroom I shared with my older sister. Slinging my bag to the floor, I grabbed the other controller and joined in, taking the role of Donkey as my brother had always preferred Diddy due to his greater agility and ease at jumping over enemies. These were the sort of days I grew up with; always seeing if friends would trade a certain game for another; trying to get levels completed before the timer ran out. I truly felt content; even if I didn’t have many friends at school, I still had my brother and his SNES to retreat home to.

Every Monday morning during the first school period my classmates and I would share stories about what we did on the weekends. I remember, quite vividly, standing in front of the class explaining that I was really happy because the day before, I had beaten my brother for the first time at Killer Instinct (causing him to break his controller by throwing it at the T.V. screen).
“Girls don’t play games!”, shouted one of the boys from the corner of the classroom; it was 1994, and gaming had only truly started to become accessible to kids of my age. If I had been a little older, perhaps I would have come up with something witty to say, or even defended my right to play games, but the six-year-old me just shrugged and sat back down.

As I grew older I thought that perhaps I would find other girls like me that would share my passion for gaming. Unfortunately due to my lack of social ability, I endured much solitude during my secondary school days. If anything my geekiness came across as even weirder to a bunch of prepubescent convent-school girls. You see, during my high-school days there was no such thing as geek-chic. Today, you see so many young girls, hipsters and Japanophiles wearing geeky t-shirts, playing with their Nintendo 3DSs on the train; we don’t even bat an eyelid – if anything, it’s considered “cool” thanks to actresses like Felicia Day and Zooey Deschanel.

It was a different story back in 1999. Kids who were seen as “geeks” were heavily bullied, at least in south-east London, and especially in my school, since it was immensely cliquey. The athletes hung out with athletes, smart kids hung out with smart kids, and my school was divided racially too. It became pretty clear to me that I had no clique. I quickly made friends with a tomboyish girl, but this friendship lasted all of two weeks before she was “stolen” away by a group of kids I went to primary school with. “She’s really weird, you know that yellow thing she carries around? It’s a Gameboy! She plays Pokemon by herself.” So that would be my defining role for the rest of my school days – the girl who plays Gameboy and hangs out by herself . Taunts like, “so did you catch them all?” followed me everywhere.

This was my experience throughout college too. Even with the introduction of boys to the equation, nothing much changed. Fortunately, I had a stronger head on my shoulders and had dealt with having pretty much the same “witty” comments thrown at me during secondary school. But there is a positive side to all this: it gave me a thicker skin. I could now take a few insults, and literally a few kicks and punches, too. What it didn’t prepare me for, however, were the misogynistic opinions from people who I, at the time, considered friends. They weren’t being mean directly to me, but as soon as I said I would like to join in their game sessions my male acquaintances would insinuate that I had no real experience as a gamer.
“Playing Pokemon when you were 11 is not considered gaming,” one of my friends told me when I asked if I could play GoldenEye with them at a party. The worst would be when they beat me at a game: “See, I knew that girls couldn’t play videogames,” would come the retort. Even if said light-heartedly, I still raged a little inside.

As games became more technical I like to believe that I developed along with them. Once online gaming took off I started to spend months and months playing Halo against my male counterparts. Being a woman, I had to prove my worth as a gamer, so I practiced every night. I made it my duty to prove that girls could not only play videogames, but do it well. My speciality during my teens were RPGs, but I soon switched my focus to shooters, probably for the sole reason that they were considered more masculine games. The Xbox had the majority, and strong titles like Gears of War and Bioshock always ended up in my hands after every payday. But it was Halo in particular became my FPS of choice.

Most online FPS gamers seem to have some sort of chip on their shoulder, pretty much like myself. Perhaps we all have some sort of thirst to prove ourselves. There was one night during my time at university that I remember quite vividly: one of my housemates tip-toed downstairs to see me under my duvet playing Halo, hands tightly clenched around the controller, eyes focused on the T.V. screen. I was screaming obscenities at one of my opponents, an instinctive reaction to one of the male players telling me he was going to “rape me” on this game and then in real life. I knew it had become too much and at that moment I pulled the plug on my Xbox and tossed my mic in the bin.

Truth be told I wasn’t particularly sad about my departure from multiplayer. It was a small tribulation after all and didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of gaming, and my biggest trial wouldn’t come until I decided to incorporate gaming into my professional career as a writer. In 2011, an opportunity was presented to me that I just couldn’t turn down: after three years of living in Japan, a publication back in the U.K. wanted me to cover the Tokyo Game Show for them. I took the much-needed time off from my full-time job as an English teacher and headed to Chiba to cover the event. It was an amazing experience to sit amongst esteemed critics and journalists from my favourite magazines and websites and be treated as their equal.

It wasn’t all testing out video-games and coming up with original questions for developers and writers though, and my unease began to surface when I was asked to cover a private event for the then-upcoming videogame, Dark Souls. As I had entered one of the suites to receive my name-tag for the day, I was a little shocked to not only find myself being the only female in the room, but also to be presented with the wrong name-tag. Even on bad days I know my own name and on my worst day I’m still pretty sure that my name is not “Lee”! After taking 20 minutes to explain to the Japanese staff that my name was in fact Franki, I secured the right name-tag and attached it to my blouse. I was absolutely in awe of the whole set-up: just before the elevator I could see the developer’s banner directing me to the right room. Walking into the suite I could see Makuhari harbour set out before me, the setting sun reflecting off of the rippling water. I had lived in Makuhari two years prior and had heard of the views you could get from this particular hotel if one were lucky enough to afford a room. And now here I was.

“Don’t see many girls at these sort of events, do you?” stated a man to my left, his voice distinctively southern.
“I guess you don’t…” I replied, my voice trailing off. This was my first time at such an event, and I was already starting to feel my gender playing a role.

In a 40-minute presentation, we got to see all the new games that the developer would later unveil at the main event. Professionalism has never been one of my strengths, but I tried to take as many notes as I could. Glancing around I noticed I was the only one jotting anything down, so I placed my pen firmly next to my cup, noting some of the other journalists smirk as I did so. Later, we had the opportunity to talk amongst ourselves during a buffet lunch, and this was the part I had been dreading; sure enough, everyone instantly turned to the person they were acquainted with and began chatting, so I decided to use this time to briefly look over my notes and turned back to the view of the harbour. I don’t know why I had brought it along, but I had my PSP tucked into my jacket pocket, and an attendee to my right noticed it. “So what you playing?” he asked rather abruptly. “Dissidia,” I replied pulling my gaze away from the harbour. “Good game, if a little too ‘fan-service-y’,” he remarked. I agreed wholeheartedly with him about how the franchise had taken a nose-dive in the last couple of years. “Do you play console?”, he asked, and we delved into a debate about which of the consoles were truly the best.

Every now and then I couldn’t help but notice that most of the men in the room kept trying to catch glimpses of me from the corner of their eyes. Thankfully, one of the presenters had made his way over, meaning the gazes were directed elsewhere now.
“Well, we have a little treat for you today. Here’s an opportunity for you to try the beta version of our new game.” The idle chatter died down at the mention of ‘beta’ and everyone crowded around the monitor to get a good glimpse of the game’s intro. “So who’s brave enough to take the first stab at this,” the presenter asked, gesturing at the controller sitting on top of the monitor.

“Ladies first,” said the journalist I’d just been chatting to, nudging me towards the T.V. If truth be told, I was rather reluctant to pick up the controller; my palms began to sweat and I could feel my heart pounding against my chest. Why was I being made to play this game first? Were they trying to test my prowess as a gamer? It felt like some kind of challenge, and some of the people in attendance began to fold their arms in impatience. I knew I had to prove myself, not because I was a woman, but because I was a gamer whose ability had always been questioned. My hand held tightly around the controller, I picked my character. I played nonstop for twenty minutes, hearing murmurs behind me: “Good move”, “She spotted it.” As I put the controller down, I got a hearty pat on the back from my acquaintance. “Not sure I want to follow that,” he said, starting up a new game. Spirits lifted, I left the hotel ready to write my article.

There are some things which are considered overtly masculine; gaming is one of them. Despite the statistics showing the increasing amount of women logging onto Xbox Live accounts, there are few women writing reviews, developing games and turning up as protagonists in them. Even in 2013, there is still a fair way to go before true equality can be realised, though I’d be lying if I said I haven’t seen some changes already; my day at the most recent Tokyo Game Show has proven that I was wrong in some respects, as reports showed that over 40% of attendees were women. Some might say that it’s all in my head, but why would I have this feeling of inferiority if I weren’t conditioned so?

Franki Webb

remmeAs I was trawling my usual gaming haunts this morning, one article in particular caught my eye. It was a piece called “Why publishers refuse games such as Remember Me because of their female protagonists”, by Eurogamer’s Tom Bramwell, and it deals with some of the issues faced by Jean-Maxime Moris, creative director of upcoming adventure game Remember Me, as the team attempted to shop their project around to interested publishers.

Now, you can already imagine what these issues were, given the title of Mr Bramwell’s article, and it’s not something we haven’t seen before. It is, however, another indictment of the state of the industry and its focus on what publishers think its audiences want (and their subsequent refusal to move away from that narrow cone of experiences). Moris told Penny Arcade that some publishers had simply dismissed the concept out of hand because of the protagonist’s gender: “We had some [companies] that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.'” It raised some thoughts in my mind, so I’ve decided to tackle a couple of them here.

An increasing number of gamers are women. This shouldn’t need pointing out, but the quote above suggests that, sadly, it needs to be. According to the Entertainment Software Association, almost 40% of American gamers are female (I don’t know what the percentage is here in the UK, but let’s assume it’s similar). Why is it ok to alienate them, but not male gamers? Almost half of their addressable audience is apparently of no consequence to these people.

Another quote from Moris:

“We wanted to be able to tease on Nilin’s private life, and that means for instance, at one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy. We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.'”

You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game. Just… wow. Now, this seems to be Moris paraphrasing what was said to him, so in the interests of being fair we can’t say for certain whether the person who said it meant just that, or that this is what Moris took it to mean. If it’s the former, we have a serious problem. This suggests that the people at the top (the publishers, the business people who, more often than not, decide whether a game lives or dies) think of gaming as a uniquely male pastime; there is an expectation that ‘the player’ essentially equals ‘young male’, and there seems to be this complete and utter refusal to see that there is a large base of female gamers that perhaps feel they aren’t being catered for in any meaningful way. I can only imagine how they must feel when they see a quote like this. Perhaps they’re just so used to it by now that they simply groan and move on with their day. But if publishers truly believe female protagonists will alienate male gamers, how can they be content to alienate female gamers who make up almost half of the game-playing (and buying) public? Are they simply that short-sighted?

(As an aside to the kissing quote: from a male standpoint, why would I care that the character in the game is kissing a man? People in relationships kiss one another! What does this say about the perceived maturity (or lack thereof) of their target audience? I feel like I should be offended!)

Tom Bramwell’s article also touches on the numbers that might help explain these decisions – publishers are, after all, businesses out to make money. Looking back at a report from Penny Arcade, Bramwell notes that games with female leads tend to sell significantly fewer units than games with male leads, while games with optional female leads still managed to sell less than games with male-only leads. This doesn’t tell the whole story, however. The figures that caught my eye showed that “from a sample of 669 current-gen games which had protagonists of a specific gender, only 24 of these were exclusively fronted by women.” Twenty-four. Twenty-four of six-hundred-and-sixty-nine. That’s pretty shameful, and given the fact that most people are therefore more likely to be used to be playing as a male protagonist, perhaps that’s why male-fronted games tend to sell better – there are more of them, and it’s what people are familiar with.

But again, there’s more to it. Those figures above came from Geoffrey Zatkin, COO of consultancy firm EEDAR. He also had this to say:

“Games with a female-only protagonist got half the spending of female optional, and only 40 per cent of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually,”

So they don’t sell because no one is trying to sell them. They send them out to die, then claim they don’t sell so that they can strangle the next one at birth? This all seems incredibly counter-intuitive to me; if you’re going to fund a game, why wouldn’t you want it to sell? Why wouldn’t you want to draw in a bigger audience, especially if it’s an audience that has historically been under-represented? Surely by opening up to this audience, this large, 40-per-cent-of-the-market audience, you’d have a captive audience?

Something clearly needs to change here. And perhaps, slowly, things are changing? Here in the U.K., Tomb Raider still sits atop the all-format charts, into its second week of release, so far managing to see off God of War: Ascension. The game has been a massive success for developer Crystal Dynamics, and, speaking as a male gamer, I don’t feel the slightest bit alienated by playing as a female protagonist. Lara is a strong, determined character who goes through hell, fights her way out the other side, and then dives back in to save her friends. She’s a strong person, a good character who cares about her companions and will do whatever she must to help them. Surely we can all relate to that? Her gender is incidental, not defining.

While not as important as the above issues, the article also brought an old question back to the forefront of my mind. It’s something I’ve often wondered about, but the quote about the character kissing a male brought it back to the forefront of my mind: do people really get so into a protagonist that they truly think it’s ‘them’ in the game? I’ve been gaming for almost 24 years at this point, and I know I don’t. Not even when it’s a silent protagonist that’s supposed to make you feel like you are the lead, such as Half Life‘s Gordon Freeman; all of this work to draw the gamer into the eyes of the beardy scientist is undermined, for me, when everyone looks you in the face and calls you Gordon. I’m not Gordon! The vast majority of game characters are just that: characters, constructs. We see them in cutscenes, they have voiced dialogue. They are not ‘me’, can never be ‘me’, so why expend so much effort on trying to drag me, kicking and screaming into the narrative? When I’m playing a game, I’m fully aware that there is usually about six-to-eight feet, a television screen, and often the back of a virtual head between me and the lead character’s mind. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel immersed in the world; I do. But that’s achieved by creating an enjoyable, believable world and filling it with interesting characters, not by trying to trick me into thinking I’m there, because that will never work. Give me a good story, and likeable, well-written characters, and I’m good. I don’t need to be a character in the game, and besides, it’s just not currently possible.

Now, you may have read that and thought, “hold on! Videogames are an interactive medium! Sounds to me like what you’re looking for is a book!” Well, no. I love videogames, I love the interactivity inherent in videogames, but I take issue with the belief that they have to make you believe you’re in the game, as if you’re an actor in a play – physically there, but following direction. Games are not like that. You are not physically there, and until we have holodecks, you won’t be. At most, they’re puppet shows; you’re pulling the strings and moving your puppet, maybe even deciding what they say from time to time (from a limited script, of course), but you’re not there, in the world. It’s Punch and Judy (invariably) with guns. No game is ever likely to make me feel like I’m the star, the lead actor, like this is happening to me (unless I invent the holodeck and write the game myself from my own life experiences – and wouldn’t that be a dull game?), so I don’t need the game to worry about catering its characters to me, because it never truly could. I’m not interested in being a demographic and being spoon-fed what people that don’t know me think I should like based on my age and gender. Just create the best game you can, and I’ll either like it or not. I mentioned that I love the interactivity in gaming, but the aspect I love the most is that they allow us to do things we otherwise can’t – travel to other worlds, save the galaxy, see things from a new perspective, be other people for a little while. So why seek to limit that scope, why seek to limit the viewpoints that you can depict?

And why deliberately seek to turn away almost half of the people out there that are buying your games?

Tom Bramwell’s article for Eurogamer:

Today, we have a Guest Editorial from writer Franki Webb, who gives us her take on the somewhat-controversial new Tomb Raider game, and the reactions to it that have been seen. Over to you, Franki!

I know the title of this article might strike you as common sense, but it surprises me how many people truly believe that discrimination can be easily justified especially within the gaming community. I was once someone who would never call someone out for saying an off-the-cuff racist comment or something that could be considered sexist. As I grew older I knew that my stance had to eventually change, because if people continued to say such demeaning words and if no one stood up against them the offenders would never realise how damaging their words were. I know some would say that they were just off-handed comments, but does that really make it okay? If we start using the excuse that offensive statements are “only words,” then doesn’t everything we say become meaningless?

I bring the subject up because of a recent development in the gaming industry; Lara Croft’s new back-story in the upcoming instalment. It’s not so much the changes to her character which have got me riled up, but the reaction certain male players have been having against female gamers, female gamers who feel uncomfortable with these alterations. Now, I’ll be the first one to defend the creator’s choice to make her character come across as a real human being capable of mistakes and fear. However, I do take issue with the developers’ choice to make her a victim of sexual harassment. The aggravated responses by men to these arguments when they are brought up just serves to remind how far behind the gaming community still is. I just find it difficult to stomach that Ron Rosenberg (executive producer) believes that to make Lara seem like a concrete person; an implied “rape scene” has to be included. Surely there are other ways to make her character’s past much more absorbing? I don’t even have a problem with the character’s said physical weakness in the beginning of the game – not even Batman started as crime-fighter, and I liked the inclusion of his training in the movie Batman Begins. It just seems like as time goes by and the media is becoming a little more open to female protagonists, they must find a way of reminding us that we are “only” women incapable of defending ourselves against the “power” of men.

The male gamers I’ve seen that have issues with women taking offense have only fueled my argument that this added element to the game is sexist. Take for example this comment I found on a recent news site:

“Like all feminazi she no doubt complained bitterly about the original version because of the objectification of a woman now complains because she appears to be the opposite. I would imagine her household is one hell of a place for a bloke unless he is the kind who likes being pussy whipped.”

Not only has he used the word, “feminazi” to get his misogynistic view across, but he also implies a sexist sentiment that the (female) writer’s household is somehow insufferable for men, because she dares to speak out against what she sees as insulting.

Give me Super Mario over Womb Raider any day!

Here’s another prime example of how men become defensive and use female attributes to criticize something that they don’t like about a certain character. I shouldn’t be implying that this attitude comes from only from a male’s perspective, truth be told I’ve seen equally sexist comments from female gamers too. This coincides with my own personal experiences. I was constantly told by my female friends that they had no or few female friends. As a gamer with a large group of female friends myself, I find this argument has absolutely no basis and it says something about you as person. When I invite friends over who happen to be female to play a few rounds of Halo, some start to become uncomfortable with the idea of females playing games. They have an insecurity, they feel like they’ve lost something which makes them unique within the gaming community. Time and time again I’ve heard the excuse that other women don’t “get” them, because they have more boyish interests. I’m not trying to dismiss their experiences, but as soon as you paint everyone with the same brush, you become just as bad as them. Even when you try to argue the fact that as women they should be offended by some of these overly sexualized designs, which are included in games, they become just as dismissive as male gamers.

Ron Rosenberg was noted to have said:

“[the players would say] ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.’

The implication that Lara has to be protected from the men in the game, only perpetuates her feminine weakness to a crowd of mostly male gamers. Is this what young boys are brought up with? We don’t want our sons to think that they are somehow stronger than women and they’ve got to protect them from the evilness of other men. Joss Whedon, who is not only one of my writing heroes but also my favorite feminist, said it best:

“When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men that not only have no problem with the idea of a female leader, but were in fact engaged and even attracted to the idea.”

And that is ultimately the problem, some game developers have a problem with creating a strong female character who is charge of not only themselves, but also the male characters of the game.

Franki Webb