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Women gamers, queer gamers and the trolls who hate them

I don’t play many console or PC games anymore, but I do watch them a lot. The last game I played all the way through was Crimson Skies, a shoot-em-up flying game set in an alternate reality of Nazis and Tesla-tech.

However my daughter, SW, is a serious gamer and I really enjoy sitting next to her and watching her play. It’s companionable and because she’s so fluent I might as well be watching a movie. When SW was little and I’d just discovered computers we played a lot of games. The first game we played together right through was the legendary The Secret of Monkey Island. And we had a pretty hilarious time last night with Harvest Moon (especially with the pig and the cats).

SW is also very good at ironising games for me. So Resident Evil 4 becomes saturated in hilarious misogynist stereotypes and idiotic macho posturing, rather than the kind of displays of brutal sexism that would once have made me grind my teeth. I’ve realised that if you’re a woman or queer gamer, you need a strong sense of the ironic and a mind of steel to be able to breathe and thrive in a culture that can often seem to despise you to a remarkable degree.

In a sense it has always been much easier for me to rail against misogyny and homophobia because I don’t have to experience its prejudices in action; I just get to actualise them. It’s the white male’s final act of narcissism. And though SW’s mother, and the gang of lesbian punk bikies who became SW’s godmothers, did their best to teach me this, it was only when I was actually responsible for the welfare of a baby girl that the understanding slowly became visceral. Even then, as the years passed, it has more often been a case of SW explaining to me: ‘No, Steve. This is how it works.’ I don’t think it’s because I’m an idiot – though this may well be true. The reality is that white male privilege bequeaths one an amazing array of blind spots, one of them being the excuse that you’re a nice person.

Whether it’s Tomb Raider or Game of Thrones, male geek culture has a lot of trouble incorporating feminist and queer narratives. Women in games are often magical helpers for men or pieces of sexualised meat – and they are always hot. Misogyny is not just about the privileging of particular models of male power but, more importantly, the explication of types of male pleasure. Very often in male geek narratives, the woman becomes the McGuffin.

‘McGuffin’ was Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the magical item or secret object that the hero of the narrative has to locate, eat, destroy, rescue, wake or marry to end the story. It’s part of the portrayal of the woman as an idealised object, and parallels the idealised magical Black characters we find in writers such as Stephen King, and, with the exception of Studio Ghibli, it’s a stereotype common to a lot of anime too.

If she’s playing online games SW has historically not disclosed the fact that she’s a woman for two reasons, both tied to different versions of misogyny. When other male gamers discover her gender she generally receives either a deluge of hate comments – similar to those at Fat, Ugly or Slutty – or what SW calls the ‘creepy Victorian gentleman’ response. The latter involves other gamers being excessively polite and giving her lots of free stuff to make it easier for her. If she doesn’t identify herself as a woman, everyone assumes she’s male. It’s the default identity in the gaming world.

Anybody born after the mid-1980s who has an interest in gaming grew up with the values and narratives of male geek culture. Women gamers and LGBT gamers are becoming more vocal as they become more numerous, but they are up against an army larger than Sauron’s orcs and about as bright and implicitly endorsed by influential gaming figures and organisations. ‘Troll’ is in this instance perhaps something more than just a designation or a metaphor.Even so, morons though they are, the geek troll’s viciousness, frightened stupidity and sense of entrenched privilege shouldn’t be underestimated.

Girl gamer

For a young woman or queer person working her or his way through the challenges, strictures and transformative possibilities of gender, one way of challenging gender norms could be to engage with gaming. What’s not to love? You can be a sassy Elvish warrior with an axe the size of a door and high ratings for sarcasm if you want, and kicking ass has got zilch to do with your actual appearance, physicality or sexuality.

In recent years, to the distress of the misogynist male geek there has been a bit of an upswing in the portrayal of gay and lesbian characters in games. One would think this is a good move, and in some ways it is. In an environment of bloody slaughter and sexist stupidity, any game that has a window on gender equality and positive sexual difference is like a spotlight from God. On the other hand, as SW suggested to me, it can also be the male designer’s enlightened idea of catering to women gamers. If you are a woman gamer, thinks the male game designer, you obviously want the opportunity to put women in bed with women or men in bed with men. None of that sexist stuff about women being bedded by men. We get that that’s not OK.

I’m not arguing that geek culture doesn’t have its radical margins. It does, and it often involves women and queer gamers and writers.But such marginality rarely finds its way into game content and narrative, and it has been unable to come to grips withthe political nature of an exploitative and unregulated industry that creates its products in sweatshop conditions. Activision CEO Bobby Kotick said of the people who design his company’s games, ‘I think we definitely have been able to instill the culture, the skepticism and pessimism and fear that you should have in an economy like we are in today. And so, while generally people talk about the recession, we are pretty good at keeping people focused on the deep depression.’

Another games executive put it like this:

I think unions are there to protect people who can’t protect themselves. I think once you get up to a certain wage level you’re charged with being able to take care of yourself and if you can’t handle it, don’t work there.

These attitudes aren’t limited to sleazy US work practices, of course. The Australian games industry is completely non-unionised and the controversy at game developer Team Bondi over the production of blockbuster LA Noire a year or two back, laid bare a neoliberal work-culture of exploitation and managerial grandiosity. The story broke at games website IGN in mid-2011 after a leak of anonymous tweets. Questioning of the veracity and motivation of the tweets was quickly followed by a series of commenters, obviously employees of Team Bondi, testifying to appalling working conditions, abusive managers and a culture of compliance and abuse.

The various professional bodies to which gaming professionals can belong have no teeth and the developers know it. They are ‘advocacy’ and networking bodies only, timidly waving voluntary codes at a rapacious industry. For every job in game development, there are a hundred super-keen kids willing to step into a toxic workplace if you complain. The reporting on the Team Bondi scandal was very light on the gendered nature of the work environment, but I’d guess that a game-design workplace is overwhelmingly male and macho, with a high index of practices of humiliation.

While there are greatly increasing numbers of women and queer gamers, the game-design environment is not just overwhelmingly male but consequently stridently misogynist in ways that are hard to comprehend. Last year the 1reasonwhy hashtag took off as women gamers and designers shared their stories of discrimination, harassment, insult and assault. And they are not unique: these stories are everywhere on the net, and they occur again and again in stupendous proportions.

It’s probably a bit of a stretch to expect either innovative narrative or complex characterisation in the games such an industry produces. The result is games like Assassins Creed , which look amazing but have the subtlety of soap opera and slaver adoringly over men engaging in balletic and pompous violence. In fact, the most interesting character in any video game anywhere is probably GLaDOS in Valve’s Portal – and she’s an evil supercomputer with a woman’s voice.

Designing a game with smart women or queer characters in it is not like trying to build a machine to find the Higgs-Boson, but it may as well be. The gaming industry seems to scratch its head over ‘games for women’ or ‘games for queer people’. If men generally play games about sports, shooting and racing, then perhaps women want games about empathy and talking? Well, they might. But they might also, as SW does, want to play first-person shooters and RPGs with protagonists who can be straight, gay or transgendered; who are intelligent, don’t need a man to tell them how to do things, and aren’t privileged because of their bodacious look.

Games company BioWare’s recent solution to queer-inclusiveness was to incorporate a gay planet, Makeb, into its Star Wars Old Republic universe, the equivalent of having a gay bar in town where you are gay on the premises, but magically not-gay while off them. And if you want to hang out on Makeb and engage in what BioWare promise is ‘flirtatious’ dialogue, you’ll need to pay extra for it.

Star Wars Old Republic

For most game designers, sexism and homophobia just doesn’t rate. It doesn’t really exist for them any more than Xenu the Galactic Overlord exists for me. Hate speech against women, gays, lesbians, trans or intersex people is someone else’s fantasy.

Just as Studio Ghibli’s children’s films make the most spectacular offerings of Pixar look like the dismal sexist vessels of deep stupidity they are, so the eloquent refusal of queer and women gamers to be silenced, and their imaginative desire to see the possibilities in games narratives, makes it blindingly obvious that misogyny and homophobia are snugly cuddled up together inside geek culture like a yolk in an egg. And the gaming industry acquiesces to this.

Portrayals of women right across mainstream geek culture are almost too misogynistic to believe. At Women In Refrigerators there’s an extensive list of all the women comic-book characters who have met grisly ends. It’s quite a compendium. From Batgirl to Wonder Woman, female superheroes are routinely maimed, sent insane, tortured, raped, murdered, kidnapped, enslaved and addicted to drugs; their children are frequently murdered and often they’re turned into vampires or zombies.

The extraordinary hatred that women and queer gamers have to endure from male gamers obscures the fact that gamer culture is actually many cultures, as Melbourne gamer Ben Mckenzie recently pointed out in a recent thoughtful blog in which he discusses the decision of his outfit PopUp Playground to pull out of the massive PAX Aus game conference held in Melbourne, because of its orchestrated misogyny.

Such protests from male gamers are uncommon. As with a lot of expressions of misogyny, for every vicious troll there are several other men who don’t endorse them but who don’t speak up. It’s the bystander problem that men can have a lot of trouble getting their head round.

Most men, gamers and non-gamers, have at some stage found themselves in a men-only situation where misogynist or homophobic comments are made – these incidents are much more common than men are generally prepared to admit. To refuse to speak up – for fear of offending one’s friends, or workplace disapproval, or because it’s ‘just a joke’, or whatever – is to give implicit consent.

It’s not about standing up for women and queer gamers but of standing with them, and not just when they can see and hear you.

It’s astounding that geek culture is still so stridently and violently misogynistic, and that women can expect to be routinely groped and insulted at gaming cons. It’s not enough for men who don’t support vicious misogynist practices to sympathise with their female or queer friends. Male gamers need to get active and speak out, with some force and clarity. Anyone can say to a troll, ‘I’m a man. I support women and queer gamers, now shut the fuck up,’ though I’m guessing not enough do. Making it clear to your best geek bud that what he’s just said makes him sound like a sexist jerk, and furthermore that you don’t agree, is harder. But I’d put money on there being even fewer male gamers speaking up in private than are doing it in public.

Still, that’s not enough. It’s a structural issue and it needs to be called that way. Writer and trans gamer Samantha Allen recently wrote a terrific open letter to the editors of several major gaming sites, imploring them to take public action on hate speech and the toxic discrimination in the gaming world. She was very clear and blunt:

Your chagrin is not good enough. You have more power and authority than you’re letting on, you’re simply choosing not to exercise it …You can no longer treat sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia as niche issues. These forms of marginalization have real effects on real people and, as you know all too well from your vantage point, they are painfully exaggerated in gaming spaces. They are problems that permeate every aspect of videogames from their production, to their player base, to the websites that write about them. (My emphasis) ..When few people besides straight men feel automatically safe on your sites, it’s not our responsibility to come in and change your communities for you. It’s your responsibility to take a bold stand for what’s right.

Given that a community of geeks is a community of geeks perpetually connected in cyberspace, who could pull a website together quicker than I could a cheese sandwich, it’s telling that male geeks, as individuals and as representatives of significant organisations, have not banded together in large numbers and made it publicly clear that misogyny, hate speech, and abuse of gays, lesbians and trans people is not okay.

Anyway, I’d have thought it’s in a geek’s genes to want to take on trolls. In Jackson’s version of Lord of the Rings Boromir famously says, ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor.’ Actually, one does.

 

Stephen Wright lives in Nimbin on a land-sharing community. He has won some things (2009 Eureka Street Prize, 2013 Nature Conservancy Prize), been shortlisted for others (2012 Creative NonFiction Prize, 2014 Calibre Prize) and was once runner-up for a poetry prize he’s forgotten the name of.

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Comments

  1. Nice one Stephen. I thought all women were expected by the industry to be middle age and play hidden object games. The meme “KEEP CALM AND SIMPLY WALK INTO MORDOR” is already out there but its belongs to you now. There’s also a geeky doco “A Simple Walk Into Mordor” but its not worth the link.

    • The great thing about being a male parent with a child who is female and then grows up, is that they tell you stuff you couldn’t possibly know otherwise. About yourself.

  2. This is scarcely my field, left or otherwise, so it’s all new. Video gaming is a megabuck industry so I don’t forsee affairs changing anytime soon. Pleasure (whose pleasure) seems to be the compelling question. As the majority of people who work on game development teams appear to be male, the particular male take, and no give, doesn’t surprise. The suggestion that some women gamers (and other gender groups) derive their own ironic pleasure beyond the misogyny etc of these mainstream male games is interesting. If so, what does that pleasure consist in? How different, and how enjoyable, would games designed by politically savvy women and other gender groups be, I wonder, for themselves, for mainstream male players? Is a new understanding of pleasure needed, if not a game design shoot out?

    • I’ve wondered – after conversations with my daughter – that she plays the games because she can see how much cooler they could be than they are. In other words one plays something like Dragon Age as an exercise in imagination and hope.
      Plus there’s of course just the pleasure one gets from playing something hilariously bad (Res Evil 4) just as one might sit down to enjoy a really bad movie.

      • Here’s another wooly idea to shoot down. If pleasure is distinct from enjoyment while playing video games, then we’re on the terrain of jouissance and the real – sustaining contradictory desires – and it becomes more a question of what video gamers really get off on: ritualistic acts performed while playing video games versus text based pleasures. If the former, then any graphic imagery would appear not to matter to the player, which means the misogynist crap et al could easily be dispensed with, as demonstrated by the popularity of such old fashioned 2D computer games as Tetris, and the current popularity of Candy Crush.

        • I think you might need to distinguish between gamers and people who play games. Gamers (in my experience) are engaged in textual readings, and sitting with my daughter and watching her play Arkham Asylum was an illuminating experience. Her skill in playing a complex game fluidly from the moment she switched it on for the 1st time, I realised was based on a complicated reading of things I coudn’t even see. That’s before she even gets to deconstructing the content.
          Anyway, reading books is ritualistic too. And the writing of them.

          • So a gamers’ readings are more than plot based – equivalent to reading the same book over and over again?

          • [i]Admit it. You don’t know anything about games do you?[/i]

            Spoken from atop your mighty pinnacle of gaming knowledge

          • Yeah, my ‘You don’t know’ original comment should have had one of those smiley-face emoticon things after it. But I hate emoticons and think they should all die.

    • Wow, that’s even more full on than the Women in Refrigerators list. It’s as if comic books are places where sadistic homophobes and misogynists get to act out their fantasies of sexualised violence.

  3. There again, rather than end on a sour note, and having had young kids myself, so reading to them when young, and playing video games with them when older, I have played such games as Need For Speed, Grand Theft Auto, Kya, Halo etc, admittedly to no great levels of competence, nor to any degree of aesthetic satisfaction, which explains, perhaps, my disregard of same.

    Cheers.

    • Funny train of events since I last played this game (emoticon in absentia as I don’t know how to do them and loathe them besides) & you were right all along: I know sweet f all about games, and most other things too, about which I am more than happy.

  4. Thanks for this. I agree with you. However, I think that there is a rising awareness, and some developers are taking a more mature approach to storytelling and gameplay.

    The Last of Us (a huge hit and the best game on the PS3 platform, IMO) conforms to traditional gender roles in a sense, largely because it has a pretty typical male protagonist (male hero/protector) and the story is pretty familiar. However, I think it’s portrayal of the key female character, Ellie, is nuanced and thoughtful. It also gives prominent roles to other women, a gay man, and black characters. They’re all pretty well developed characters. And as a result it’s by far the most moving gaming experience I’ve ever had.

    There is an interesting interview with game’s creators here.

    http://venturebeat.com/2013/08/05/the-last-of-us-female-characters/

    • I should warn that the interview has spoilers. For those that are interested in playing the game (and I highly recommend it) I would play it first.

      • Yeah, TLoU sounded interesting, though I note that the trope of the magical elf-child (the infected Ellie) is still getting a run. My daughter is currently playing BioShock Infinite and reports that it is showing promise, but the jury is still out.
        Studio Ghibli’s 1st foray into gaming features (of course) strong female characters, but the usual excellent Ghibli narrative seems to have been bonded to the Dragonball-Z game engine, or something like it, which is a bit of a bummer.
        There’s a long way to go still for the misogynist geek industry. Of course there are a milliion indie games that I’m unfamiliar with and perhaos there’ll be some movement there that will get some traction. But as I pointed out, its not just a value-shift in portraying game characters that’s needed, but a radical shake-up in the structure of a gendered, exploitative industry run like any other ruthless capitalist enterprise.

        • Yeah, I’d be more impressed if TLoU featured a hardened female merc protectively chaperoning a boy. Though Naughty Dog have written some pretty decent female characters and I do still want to play this.

          Something Steve cut out of his original article was that while Bioshock Infinite is full of awful and violent racism, practised and internalised by the most vile stereotypes of the conservative South (pre-emancipation), those same vile conservatives are very keen on equal rights for women. Purely because it would actually be *less acceptable* to have a game highlighting the vileness of sexism. Misogyny is not there, so that the devs didn’t have to deal with it.

          There is a tongue-in-cheek reference to this, in a conversation overheard in-game, where an NPC says something about how he wishes they could just get rid of all the “blacks, anarchists, and misogynists”.

    • Well I guess from my side, being someone always banging on here about art and literature’s positioning of itself as transcendent pursuing truth and beauty or whatever, having the spotlight brought back to political ideas like misogyny is helpful. Misogyny always gets pushed to the back shelf which is to say that the construction of the male gaze is ignored, and becomes the default position: Picasso wasn’t constructing the pleasurable male gaze he was redefining the Beautiful etc.
      Brophy doesn’t say what he means by psychosis, which would be interesting to know.
      Gaming is often actually inhabiting the male gaze and actualising it. The arm and gun of the first person shooter is always male even when the character is female. It’s like being jammed inside a robot you can’t control the thinking of. Which is why I think that women and queer gamers have to imaginatively rip out the entrails of the game and inhabit it in their own way.

    • Are you saying that any female character has not got a female forearm to match her? that seems like such a weird missing element. Like not changing the colour of the outfit on the arm when the outfit is changed on the whole avatar. Got any screen grabs of this?

      • No, no, I just mean that even when the 1st person shooter is female, she might as well be male

        • I prefer it this way actually! Games starring women are almost always in 3rd person so you can see their tits and ass. In Metroid Prime trilogy, an action scifi purely about killing evil aliens, you play a woman who is in first-person AND is encased in full body armour with her only visible arm encased in a giant gun. You never see her. I find this oddly empowering. Most games only have female protagonists if they think that will appeal to the demographic (casual gamer mums, or horny teen boys). But MPT makes the protagonist a woman for no reason at all. It’s great. I love Samus Aran. No boyfriend, no backstory, no personality beyond being a hero mercenary who murders evil aliens. It’s true equality.

          • If that’s the case, SW, how do you know the first-person no-backstory character is female at all? (or male at all, or gendered, or not gendered). Does it become just an issue of name? and perhaps sound of voice if there’s a voice over? or do you get a look at the character in the intro sections?

          • Portal too. I like how no issue is made of. It’s just a thing. It’s just as valid to have a female protagonist.

  5. “I’d put money on there being even fewer male gamers speaking up in private than are doing it in public.” seems like a mathematical impossibility. Is the thought like “wearing a tie is symbolic but so is not wearing one”?
    Which brings me to a second query: the double meaning of “structural issue”. A campaign mounted publicly and addressed to the perpetrator so to speak raises the issue to a structural level in one sense. But a word to your complicit buddy bro would also be about the power structured into the semantic environment of gaming. I blame Luke for prompting these comments.

  6. EA executive at PAXAus on Friday showing off his game says “and you don’t have to hand in your man card”. It’s just so prevalent – there were so many women at that conference and he is comfortable saying this? I don’t have a man card but I do have a credit card. And yet we are invisible to him?

    You comment about letting people know you’re female or not by SW in online games rings very true. I’m glad she’s helped you see the funny side of it. If I think about it I just feel so helpless so it’s just better to laugh. They’re only games after all.

    • The comment by the EA executive geek goes to the heart of the matter. It’s one of those comments most likely to be brushed off as ‘a joke’ as though the problem lay with anyone who complained. Misogyny is invisible to male gamers, which is why it’s been so hard to get a shift in values. You’re right being dad to a woman gamer gives me a slightly more robust sense of humour about it, but oddly being a father as I said made misogyny more visceral to me than even being in a relationship with a strong feminist didn’t. Maybe it was too easy to pay lip service before that.

      • Well thank you for speaking out. If I speak out I get ‘reinterpreted’ except by the friends who know me. And I’m sick of it. I don’t want to be thought of as a ‘female gamer’ but just a ‘gamer’.

        • That’s interesting, the ‘reinterpretation’ you have to endure. It’s part of standard masculine practice, as though your thoughts weren’t really yours but actually copyrighted to someone else.
          SW is a big fan of Portal too. Despite being an evil supercomputer GLaDOS is a complex character, with much irony in her speech and humour. But because she’s essentially bodiless, nobody has the chance to dress her up in an armoured bikini or torn clothing.

          • Also worth noting that the *protagonist* of Portal is also a woman. Another first-person female character that you don’t really see, except sometimes at a distance as you catch fleeting glimpses of yourself hopping through the portals. And it’s one of the most popular games out there, pretty much a gamers’ household name.

  7. This is part of what I find compelling about the female targeted casual games. While there are still plenty of examples of men writing what they think women want, and having it come off a bit like pandering, the knowledge that the target audience is women changes the story dynamics a lot. I’m biased, since I work in the industry, but I feel like the game play has been evolving, and becoming much more than hidden object and time management. I just wish I knew how to cross-pollinate some of the lessons these casual games have learned into hardcore games, in exchange for some of the superior design and complexity that hardcore games have figured out.

    • But it’s a structural issue, and its easy as I find myself doing getting caught up in thinking about specific games or styles of games. There are hardly any women working in game design, and I’d guess that the game design studio isn’t friendly to gays and trans people either. When the game design workforce is 50% women then we might see some change that has longevity and is reality-based.

  8. SW, if you are into “play[ing] a woman who is in first-person AND is encased in full body armour with her only visible arm encased in a giant gun”…

    how do you even know the female first-person no-backstory, body-armoured character is female? (or that the males are male, or have any gender). It is just the name? or sound of voice is there’s a voice over? or at some point do you see the look of the character (face? body?) in the game?

    Sorry of that’s a dumb, non-gamer question.

    • The Metroid franchise has been around since the 80s. The character of Samus has been long-established as female (and blonde). In-game she doesn’t speak, but other characters refer to her with gendered pronouns, and during explosions her feminine-looking eyes are ‘reflected’ in the visor… so you are constantly reminded.

      With that said, in the very first Metroid game you had no way of knowing your character was female. It was just a blocky little suit of armour that shot things. After you beat the game, the ending credits showed the character minus the armour to reveal a woman. It was still pretty sexist because if you beat the game fast enough she would be stripped to a bikini, but the idea was sound, and was popular enough to make her an enduring action hero.

      There has actually been a more recent addition to the series by a different developer; it’s called Other M and apparently features Samus sans her armour in a skin-tight bodysuit, being vulnerable and traumatised by the aliens. The other Metroid games have largely ignored Samus’ gender as unimportant to the game and story, and never even showed her out of the armour until the credits. She had no personality aside from being a dedicated badass. But Other M threw that whole tradition in the bin and not only made her appearance a main focus (she has huge breasts and a childlike face), but completely rewrote her, put her in relationships with strong men, and gave her a shitty personality. It copped a lot of flak, and rightly so.

      • Thanks SW for this info. It reminds me of a novel that was read aloud to the upper primary school class I belonged to as a student. And the book’s main character (a child) had a unisex name but with all the sorts of things they did it seemed to me, and it seemed to me the whole class assumed, the child was a boy. And basically in the last chapter or page, we find out the child is actually a girl. It was like a sweet, subtle punchline I never saw coming. And had a kind of gender bender critique in it: well, if she was a girl, but I assumed she was a boy, then what?… ie, why couldn’t a girl do all those activities, climbing trees etc that was throughout the novel.

        I suppose it’s a very different circumstance, but the non-indication of gender, except for a ‘reveal’ at the end, is what got me thinking of it.

        Do you ever get to strip men to briefs in any of the games?

        • Yeah, some games let you strip all the characters down to underwear to equip armour and robes on them and stuff.

          In the Elder Scrolls series you can loot the bodies of slain enemies, and the loot includes their weapons, armour, and clothing. You end up with a lot of naked elves and orcs littering the battlefields.

    • Stephen, if possible, can you ask this question of SW. I’m interested in what the answer/s might be.

        • Asking questions are different to determine who/how one answers. Clearly I couldn’t get you to ask a question, It’s up to you whom you ask questions or of not. Or what about. Or when.

          But anyways, could you answer this question. For someone that doesn’t play games, I’m wanting to find out how gender is even constructed in games without body-looks and back stories. It it’s just a name, that seems rather thin, either way (for males and females). I’m sure I’m missing a whole lot which is why I am asking.

          • There’s two issues. First, the structural-industrial, that is who writes the games, who promotes them and so on. This is overwhelmingly done by white men. Almost half the population of gamers are women as far as its been calculated. Queer gamers numbers I don’t know. Either way, they aren’t allowed to make games, comment on them and so on.
            The second is the games themselves. The protaganists are usually men, usually white, and women are magical offsiders. Even where this isn’t true (ie: PORTAL) the games are still written by white men who are still deciding on the representations of women, blacks, queers and so forth.
            The BioWare response for calls for queer-inclusion is instructive: they made a gay planet. It would surely be easier design-wise to give players the options when they are personalising their avatars, to make them female or gay, or trans or black or hispanic, or Aboriginal or whatever and so the same for the non-playing character. After all you can often choose to be a wizard, elf, alien, mutant or whatever. A trans or gay or woman gamer isn’t asking the opportunity to be given the option to be ‘flirtatious’ in a gay bar, they just want to inhabit the game. Including gay characters, or women as protagonists isn’t that hard. Designers just don’t want to do it.

  9. Very nice article.
    First, how old is SW?
    Since she gives a very comprehensive overview of the gender biased approach game developers take, it is difficult to decide whether to picture you sitting on a couch watching an 8 year old play or a 28 year old.

    Also, as a long time male gamer, I have always noticed the misogyny in games. particularly with the lead roles. Though taken it in the same light as say Hollywood action movies. Producers and developers alike seem to create movie and game roles to fit in to a predefined mould to match the stereotypes of the “action hero” or gunslinger. I guess to save time in developing the depth of the characters for ease of palatability for a potentially dumb audience.
    Maybe developers will soon realise their audience hungers for more “true to life” female protagonists, if this be the case. Maybe soon we will see a female lead akin to that of BBCs “Silent Witness”.
    Unfortunately at the moment it seems biceps and F-bombs rule the roost!
    I for one would love to play as a female soldier in the upcoming Battlefield 4. Dice should certainly consider this in their online multiplayer! I KNOW there are plenty of female veterans (GI Jaynes) out there!

    • I think SW’s age can be safely left our of the picture, It’s the kind of question women have to often to answer but men don’t.
      I’m not sure misogyny saves time, but it saves thinking and prevents any change in the dynamic of power and control.

      • I think he just wants to know if I’m an adult or a child. I dunno how many 8-year-olds he knows who play Arkham Asylum though.

      • I think the age-question could be interesting in a more general sense: what would genderising in games look like to an 8yrs (playing games an 8yrs might be interested in) versus a 28yrs (playing other games). It would not surprise me if it ‘starts young’.

        • Well it’s the same as any sexism, or racism, or homophobia etc. If you’re exposed to it at a vulnerable age then you internalise it. The only way to have defenses against that kinda stuff is to have parents who raise you to identify it and question it.

  10. While my experience with gaming culture does support much of what you’re saying I think that your paragraph on Bioware, and Star Wars: The Old Republic is misleading.

    At launch there was no same-sex romance option in the game for anyone and was added in response to reasonable fan requests in an expansion park more than a year after launch, and several months after the company had abandoned the pure subscription business model they initially utilized. It isn’t unreasonable for a company to charge money for an expansion to their game, in fact it’s been standard practice for rather a long time.

    While having the same-sex relationships limited to Makeb for the moment understandably provoke complaints about the ghettoisation of the same, the reality is that reworking the game to include them start-to-finish would be a costly and time consuming project as tampering with the coding can create unpredictable problems in the program. Which is one of the reasons for the frustrating weekly maintenance shutdown which attempts to correct the bugs that have crept into the products, and for the irregular shutdowns to correct game destroying bugs resulting from recent product updates.

    Nor is it fair to describe Makeb as a “gay planet” or to compare it to ” a gay bar in town where you are gay on the premises, but magically not-gay while off them.” The addition of same-sex relationship options, while admirable, was beside the point. Incidental to the other features.

    I’m less aware of other gaming companies, but Bioware has made considerable improvements in including gay characters in their Mass Effect and Dragon Age where they have consistently shown same sex relationships as being unexceptional. On the infrequent times they appear it generally goes unremarked upon, and without undue attention.

    As I said initially, my experiences do largely conform to what you’ve written – especially in regards to the fan community. But since I do feel your representation of Bioware’s products and bias is misleading I felt I should comment.

    For anyone interested in the issues of inclusion of female and queer gamers I can’t recommend the David Gaider’s tumbler page enough, as he speaks about the issues regularly and with great articulacy.

    http://dgaider.tumblr.com/

    • Bioware is pretty exploitative. It seems like they try, but come up with some weird crap. DA1 was not so bad aside from Leliana’s implied rape and Zevran being a massive gay stereotype. But in DA2, every guy is a deliberately constructed yaoi fantasy for female players to write fanfic over, and the women are anime/porn fantasies, and everyone is bisexual, and they’ll sleep with you even if they hate you so you can screw them all regardless of your gender or relationship with them.

      The game is inclusive to a female audience, but using the same exploitative titillation by which most games appeal to men, only now it’s exploiting pretty much everyone, including homosexuals.

      Let’s not forget the slave companion in KotOR, who can be freed by you with the removal of her awful shock collar, only to then offer you bondage sex utilising the collar…

      It’s baffling, because Gaider does seem to genuinely care about equal rights but then gives the ok to stuff like this.

  11. Of course male characters are not idealised hyper-sexualised female fantasies at all. I mean girls never look at muscle-bound men playing football, or talk about their tight shorts. They never want to date bikies, they never marry tradesmen. They never lust after surfers.
    Women never look for men who can solve everything and are just aching to take all the responsibility, until they finally crack, become alcoholic, violent or just plain depressed and get tossed on the divorced-dad heap.
    That never happens.
    Video games always depict wan academics with poor muscle tone explaining post-modernism to the uncomprehending world, who are slowly but surely won over and confess the folly of their ways.
    Women in games are never shirty or domineering house-wife overlord types. No, never. They’re never unattainable, yet ever so hostile and bitter, no never. Not at all.
    Video-games bear no resemblance to working class and lower-middle class lifestyles, tastes and aspirations, and they don’t reflect their beliefs and short-comings.
    Men who save the world are having a great time, violence is so wonderful, those guys are so lucky. All the slaughtering, they must be elite, happy and fulfilled. We really should hurt them some more, they’re so contended, they definitely need to be brought down a peg.
    In closing: male jealousy doesn’t exist. Women aren’t jealous, lesbians aren’t jealous and pasty academics aren’t jealous either, and it doesn’t show at all.

  12. Interesting article and discussion thread. I have a somewhat contrarian view on this though, viewing the creation of non-misogynistic or queer-oriented games as less of a PC, liberal social engineering mandate and more of an instance of market or consumer demand. To me the issue with this discussion is the solipsism inherent in its critique of the game industry in assuming that a large majority of game consumers want PC products. There is no question but that they do not and I think it’s misguided to blame corporate gamers for their “lack of vision” in vending products that are violent and sexist. They have done their research, know their market and are providing products that have optimized what their core constituency of consumers want and will purchase.

    This does not deny the fact that there is definitely another, small market for PC games — albeit perhaps a niche market today — for politically correct games as this discussion thread attests. And, if there is any trend in it, a small constituency today can become a large majority tomorrow. Personally, I fully believe those games exist today and they are just so new or have such small sales levels that they are undiscovered by the wider media. If this is not the case, then there can be no question but that the entrepreneurial talent exists to create them.

    As should be evident, I do not believe that there is any corporate conspiracy aimed at suppressing alternative games. Rather, I think it is incumbent on those who believe in the potential of these alternate game realities to translate them into products that can go viral.

    • I think you’re giving a simplistic reading of market powers and dynamics, one that subscribes to the idea of a market as a neutral enterprise where one just has to make a good product to prosper. And I’d be interested to see what constitutes ‘research’ for big games companies. The figures I’ve seen thrown around on gamer populations say that almost half of gamers are female. And while – as female gamers report – they will play even the most ludicrous sexist games and enjoy them (as ironic commentary and because they like critiquing gameplay in its many forms and, as I said, because they see what even bad games COULD be) they seek something more.
      The Big Games sell because they often have massive resources put into them to beef up the game engine and the graphics, which smaller developers can’t compete with, and all gamers find that kind of grunt appealing.
      Women gamers are n’t necessarily seeking a game written by Judith Butler, they just want the most basic parity; female characters who aren’t glammed-up add-ons. As the trans writer Samantha Allen said in her letter to gaming elites, they can easily make room for women, gay and trans gamers if they want to. And the market impact would be negligible. They just don’t want to. It’s ridiculous that a mega-popular format of entertainment is so astoundingly sexist. In terms of description of gender roles its like 1950.

  13. As a proud owner of several gaming consoles and avid gamer of action/fps games, i must say i dont find anything offensive in any of those games. Yes, in some games female as portrayed in skimpy dresses, but so are men..’Macho, unrealistically muscular hot dude walking around in underwears’. Afterall I dont think video games portray women any sluttier than the media, there are sluttier girls with skimpier clothes walking around in the streets these days for christs sake !
    Again, im an odd one among my female friends and gets judged by my female friends (not male) for playing action games. All my girlfriends play is angrybirds, farmville on fb or puzzles like sudoku. Despite of the stunning % of women gamers depicted by medias 90% must be casual gamers like my friends.

    • Um, I’m probably not really comfortable with the term ‘sluttier girls’, but I think the sexism in video games is not just about the way women are dressed – though I imagine if I were a woman going into battle against an orc army I probably wouldn’t wear a bikini.
      I’m addressing narratives of gender and the fact that women are positioned in very specific ways in games, usually as sexualised add-ons. If you as a waoman don’t find that kind of portrayal offensive then, Ok. But I’d just suggest that the rampant sexism in games is deeper and more complex than what’s in a wardrobe.

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