Those Misogynist Games

 Duke Nukem Forever. Duke was never about being politically correct, though. He's a blatant satire taken to the nth degree..
Duke Nukem Forever. Duke was never about being politically correct, though. He’s a blatant satire taken to the nth degree..

Here’s one I’ve been reluctant to do because it’s a topic I surely can’t win at as I risk exposing some hitherto undiscovered bigotry with every word. But sure, let’s give it a go. It concerns a conversation I had on the bus with a girl one night about two months ago. I thought of relating the conversation on the blog, then decided not to, but then a few days later I spotted the same girl again! This time I was on the bus and she was crossing the street so we didn’t meet. Regardless I decided that this total coincidence should be taken as a sign (it shouldn’t, but whatever) and I’d do this post. Since it happened a while back I’ll be paraphrasing a bit.

To start back at the start, I was on the 145 bus home from Dublin one night in August with Daniel Aherne from the Onikira team. We’d just come from dubLUDO, a meetup of Dublin game developers. We were chatting away on the bus and an Irish girl and a Filipino guy (yes, I did spell that correctly) got on and sat just behind us. The girl was quite chatty. She didn’t know the guy. She’d just sort of acquired him by talking at the bus stop and we were quickly added to the conversation. They’d come from a punk gig so we started talking music, then asked a little about the Philippines. Naturally enough she then asked where we’d come from. We said dubLUDO and in answer to her next question explained that, basically, “we make games”.

Her next question surprised me at the time, and I’ve thought about it a lot since.

“Oh, like misogynist games”?

That was her first response to us. I felt accused at first. So I then felt like I should be defensive. Of course I wasn’t personally under attack or being criticised, so reasoned discussion ensued. Dan and I explained in turn. My game (here) is very early on but is about spaceships and will have male and female characters. The player could be either, for all they know. In Onikira you slay demons as an ancient Japanese samurai, so you play a male, but you’ve a female mentor character too who teaches and guides the player character. Dan also explained that the last game he worked on had you playing as a priest in a Father Ted inspired kind of game.

 'Onechambra' exists. But it's very overt about how much of a piss-take it is, so is it a problem?.. I don't even want to try answer that one. To be clear, yes, that's a fruit 'bikini'!
‘Onechambra’ exists. But it’s very overt about how much of a piss-take it is, so is it a problem?.. I don’t even want to try answer that one. To be clear, yes, that’s a fruit ‘bikini’!

She thought our games all sounded cool and we enquired what sort of view she had of games. She said she didn’t play any but she’d know about the big ones like Grand Theft Auto, Halo, and Tomb Raider. 

So I’m totally inside of the gaming world and I see all sorts of games. Progressive games. Poignant games. Sexist games. Games where you can play as a man or woman and have gay or straight (or interspecies; hey, I’m not one to judge!) relationships. Then puzzle games, games where you’re a robot, a God, a male, a female, an animal, a demon, elf, angel, alien or spaceship. I see all sorts of great and crappy games getting made and I can point to dozens or hundreds of games in my own library that you couldn’t accuse of being misogynist, some that are being overtly and deliberately progressive, and yes, a few that you could definitely accuse of being disrespectful to women (and men’s intelligence at the same time, in certain cases). So personally, I’m not overly worried about misogyny in gaming long term because I think we’re definitely headed in the right direction. Of course, I’m a straight white male, so I’m liable to be just totally wrong there, but for every (let’s say ‘recent’) game you can show me that perpetuates the stereotype that games are misogynist toys for ignorant boys, I’ll show you a dozen that don’t, and some that directly oppose that notion.

The girl I spoke to on the bus, though (let’s pretend one person is representative of a larger group for a moment) is totally outside the gaming world. We asked her why she went straight to the words “misogynist games” when we mentioned our livelihoods. She pointed to examples like Grand Theft Auto and Halo, where she just sees male characters, men in armour, men with guns, then women in jeopardy or dancing in strip clubs, etc. She said she thinks women aren’t powerful in games “except for like, Tomb Raider, and even then Lara Croft’s just shown as a sex symbol”. Of course, the reboots have changed Lara Croft’s image, which she was happy to learn.

 Lara Croft, now with added trousers, narrower hips, no visible tummy, and smaller boobs.
Lara Croft, now with added trousers, narrower hips, no visible tummy, and smaller boobs.

Grand Theft Auto, okay, is never going to win prizes for sensitivity. It’s deliberate though. They market their games on controversy. However, we did all find it odd that in a game where you have 3 lead characters (GTA V), not one of them was female. Surely there was room. We’ve two white guys and one black guy (at least it wasn’t 3 white guys) but no women. Maybe Rockstar deserve some criticism there. These were all new characters written from scratch. They could have been anybody so why not write in a female character? We know GTA has female players. At least you can play as a female in multiplayer.

With Halo, Master Chief was a male character first written into existence in the late 90s, when male leads were absolutely the norm as games were still seen as something consumed mostly by boys. Halo then became a huge franchise and Master Chief became a gaming mascot. They won’t write him out of that series, or retcon him to be female, and he’ll still feature prominently on all marketing material, but they do add female characters (and powerful ones) into the Halo universe to make up for this while retaining the valuable Halo brand’s lead character. Miranda Keyes was a powerful female support character in Halo 2 & 3, and the leader of the Spartan squad in Halo 4 was female. Similarly, Gears of War (after the first one) started adding playable female soldiers, even if we still mostly had to follow Marcus Phoenix as the game’s charismatic (jk) lead.

 8 males, one female, and pikachu (who I'm not sure about)
8 males, one female, and pikachu (who I’m not sure about)

One big perceptual problem for games, as seen from the outside, I suppose, is that the big icons of gaming, the mascots, the characters that wind up in the windows of Game Stop on the high street, are almost all male. These mascots are seen by everybody as they’re used to sell the big games in the big shops, so people who aren’t playing more games still just see these male mascots and take away a certain perception of the games industry. Mario, Sonic, Master Chief, Agent 47 (Hitman), Batman; these are all mascots because their series have had the time to grow into global brands, but the characters were created when we were still thinking about games (and comics) audiences as almost entirely male. It takes many years (several successful games) to make an icon out of a mere lead character, so the ones we have currently are the ones that were created years ago to appeal to who we thought games consumers were at the time.

Thankfully, in recent years we’ve seen (a finally more sensible) Lara Croft, Amanda Ripley (Alien Isolation) and “femshep” (female option for Shepard from Mass Effect) in shop windows. Coming up to the release of Horizon Zero Dawn next year I expect to see Aloy (reportedly inspired by Ripley from Alien) there too. “Equal opportunities” in game shop windows is still archaic it seems, but I think it’s headed the right way. As I said, it can take a decade or more to create a real gaming mascot, and like it or not, brand familiarity sells! Therefore, it gets window space, and the general public may not see the changes as quickly as gamers will. Gone Home was never going to be in the window at Best Buy, but Horizon Zero Dawn probably will.

 Non-sexualised strong female lead? Check! Look for Horizon Zero Dawn on PS4 in 2016.. wish I had one now..
Non-sexualised strong female lead? Check! Look for Horizon Zero Dawn on PS4 in 2016.. wish I had one now..

But games aren’t just about being male or female led story-based experiences. These types of games are possibly even outnumbered by ones where you play as a non-descript manager, commander, God, alien, robot, car, amorphous blob, or anything else (without even mentioning virtually every puzzle game). If all the games where the player had to play a certain gender suddenly disappeared, gaming would still be a wonderful and vibrant space. The Sims, Cities Skylines, Angry Birds, Forza, Civilization. All top gender-neutral games.

Back on the bus, we explained about the types of games we’d just seen under development in Ireland at dubLUDO. Guild of Dungeoneering was just out, where you control your male or female dungeon raiders. Owen Harris was creating Deep, a meditative VR experience. Floaty Ball (please click that link and vote for them on Greenlight) is a great 4-player party game where you just play as a floaty ball-thing! Hot-Shot Wreckers is a micro-machines-esque racing game. You play as a car. I didn’t recall even seeing a game that day that had a gender-specific player character. We also see more and more female students in the game colleges and in gaming jobs.

I hadn’t left dubLUDO worried about where the games industry was heading in years to come, let’s say that much. But the girl on the bus reminded me that we may have a long we to go before we shake the image we’ve earned in years gone by.

  MGS V Spoiler:  The sniper, Quiet. Oh no, it's cool! She breathes through her skin, right? So her outfit makes sense. - Mate, you'd have been better off just saying
MGS V Spoiler:  The sniper, Quiet. Oh no, it’s cool! She breathes through her skin, right? So her outfit makes sense. – Mate, you’d have been better off just saying “we have a sexy sniper in the game because we know some of our players will find her hot as hell”.

There’s still shining examples of embarrassing bullshit out there (ahem.. QUIET!!) but at the same time, every (male) reviewer that I saw review The Phantom Pain loved the game and gameplay and thought that Quiet was an embarrassment to an otherwise great game. These reviewers were all younger than Hideo Kojima (The Phantom Pain’s creator, who in fairness, has created some great female characters in the Metal Gear series). I mention this because I think the tide is flowing strongly in the other direction and institutionalised sexism is on the way out as younger generations come in. Almost half of all gamers are female. Bigger marketing-oriented games companies are realising this and moving away from marketing their games solely towards teenaged boys. More and more games let you choose your character’s gender or have shared male and female leads (most RPGs, The Last of Us, The Walking Dead). I’ve heard teenaged male youtubers playing the Phantom Pain and they are dumbfounded at the “reason” for Quiet’s almost-nudity in the game. So even the demographic that a character like Quiet was made to appeal to isn’t so stupid as to blindly accept a transparent made-up reason for dressing down a female character.

A few rapid-fire reflections:

  • If a game has only a male playable character, is it automatically misogynist, or harmful? No, I don’t think so, and I don’t think any sensible person should. That would set an unreasonably low bar for defining the “bad games” (for want of a better word that I feel is eluding me).
  • Do I think female gamers deserve more lead characters they can relate to? Yes.
  • Do I feel uncomfortable when a game forces me to play as a girl even though I’m a boy? No! Perfect Dark is possibly my favourite N64 game actually, making it one of my all time favourite games.
  • By that same token, should girls then be fine with playing as males? I don’t think a male lead stops many girls from playing a game they want to play, but the imbalance in offerings is ridiculous, and the world is missing out on some great perspectives.
  • But do we really need to actively address the imbalance of male to female leads? I think so. If most games featured female leads I’d want to see more male-led ones in the world, so, yes. The opposite should be true also. 
  • (I looked through my Steam library earlier) Was I surprised at how few games allowed me to play as a female vs those where you played only as a male? Yes. Shocked actually. The ratio is astounding.
  • Is it enough to let the player decide their gender? Not ‘enough’, no. I think it’s great that many games have taken the route of giving you a name like “Alex” or “Jesse” and just creating male and female character models. Let the player decide. It works well in the cases I’ve seen it used in. There’s nothing wrong with it, but..
  • Should there be games written with just female leads, then? Of course! Letting the player decide their gender limits our stories to human issues only. There are great stories waiting to be told from the female perspective. Movies haven’t shied away from female leads, and games can be even more powerful for making the player/viewer feel empathy. We should definitely have more games with female leads and strong stories. I’ve never seen a game (not saying it doesn’t exist somewhere though) that addresses the issue of miscarrying a child, for example. How would an empathic male player feel after playing through something like that? I’d love to find out. I’m not a parent, but Walking Dead Season 1 made me feel more like a father than any other experience I’ve ever had. Games are powerful, man!
  • Does it bug me to see male characters in full protective armour standing next to female characters in (what would appear to be) less protective armour? Yes! Bugs the crap out of me!
 Nope. Not 'genius'.
Nope. Not ‘genius’.
  • Should there be more games like Gone Home? I don’t think it was a very engaging game, so not too like Gone Home, but seeing games explore more human issues is a good thing. The player character being female in that game doesn’t matter a whole lot to the story. It could have been an older brother character and still worked. The lead character is that game is arguably the absent sister.
  • Do I think it’s wrong to feature sexy characters in games to sell more copies? I don’t, personally. People like what they like; be it sleek cars, big guns, sexy women, dark men in smart suits, oily men in banana hammocks, colourful panoramic vistas, or the wonder of the solar system. All of these things appeal to human beings (some of them more than others based on gender/orientation) and I don’t see anything wrong (at a fundamental level) with acknowledging that and using it. Respect is key, as always, and I think that’s where the problems come in. But I think models, dancers and strippers should be allowed to use their bodies to earn a living. Why not? Who are we to tell them what they can’t do when they’re not hurting anybody? So why not let artists draw a computerised body to sell something else? It’s a huge topic, I know, but that would be my opening argument, I suppose.
  • Then, would I be interested in seeing a game like DOA Beach Volleyball but with an all-male cast instead of all-female? Yes, very interested! I hope it happens! Women like sexy men and men like sexy women, yet it’s nearly only sexy women used to sell products. I think that particular imbalance is silly, and agree that there’s some harm in it.
 There's a market for this stuff, so it'll sell. Should we object or acknowledge?
There’s a market for this stuff, so it’ll sell. Should we object or acknowledge?
  • Does it bother me if I offend people? Yes. I don’t want to do that. I’d rather we all get along, I just know that’s not always possible. But please leave comments below if you want to educate me as to something. I’m receptive, not defensive.
  • Do I think some people are too sensitive? Definitely! Why else would someone yell back in response to a question (being ‘hangry’ is a common cause) or post murder and rape threats in response to an opinion? I was already accused of being sexist specifically for writing the Player Too series, where I simply document trying to get my girlfriend interested in playing games with me. Where the sexism is there will have to be pointed out to me. I didn’t get to speak to the accuser as they posted in a Facebook group, quickly flew off the handle, and got banned by the group’s admin. I never even saw it but was told the poster was a girl and she likely hadn’t had time to read the blog before she posted, as it was mere minutes after my own post with the blog link. Perhaps then, she saw the title or the first paragraph, took a wild guess as to the content of the blog, and went on the offensive. “TLDR. Must be evil. I should comment in case”. If that’s the case: Don’t be like that. Come on!

I was a bit surprised at the girl-on-the-bus’s statement, and even still am a bit after I considered her point of view. We’ve shown the games industry as a male-oriented and at times sexist domain in the past, but we’re making great progress too. The games industry is larger than the movie and music industries combined so why is our progress so invisible to non-gamers? It would be super-visible if we aggressively changed the genders of all our male mascots, but nobody is arguing for that. It shouldn’t happen. There’s nothing wrong with Mario, Sonic, or Master Chief themselves. They just don’t have enough female counterparts. It’s a sausage fest!

Sexism still exists in all walks of life and should be educated against, but it’s also diminishing (at least in my corner of the world). Accusations alienate and polarise. I think that true equality just takes time to fully arrive, and when it does it will still take time for everyone to accept that it has. Education and patience is the best way to get there.

What’s done is done. Mistakes have been made, but so have some great games and franchises. People will always disagree over what’s acceptable satire and what’s offensive. They’ll also disagree (for a long time at least) over what’s an acceptable use of the female (and male) body in commerce and entertainment. We’ll never all be on the same page, I don’t think, so accusations of misogyny and bigotry will probably always be levelled at somebody or another. Can we just acknowledge that we’re making progress in creating a more egalitarian industry, and agree to disagree (amicably) on the other stuff? 

If everybody would feel less threatened, be more open to change, recognise that change is happening but takes time, would think before they speak, be more open to discussion and less quick to threaten then I think we could all make and play some great games together.

Further Reading: There’s a good, shorter article by somebody with a better planned-out approach to the subject here on Gamasutra.

Until next time..