Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Cause of Endless Debate

Props once again
to Grand Text Auto, for providing some interesting links.

The one that I thoroughly enjoyed was Mary Flanagan's essay exploring that monster issue of gender and video games.

I encourage people to read the whole essay. Trust me, it's not very long and it makes some excellent points.

I found this, in particular, to be a good goal to steer toward:

"In gender research in the games industry, designers must be able to work towards gender equity without falling into stereotyping traps, realizing the inherent breadth and contradictions of categorization."

Because categorization is particularly troubling to me, a wannabe game designer. I have no fucking clue what a 'girl game' would look like, and to be honest, I don't want to know. How could I be so sexist?

Well, I don't know what a 'guy game' looks like, either (I know it doesn't look like The Guy Game, though, that's for damn sure).

Some days it seems I hardly know what a game looks like at all. The truth of it is that most designers probably work from gut initially, finding themes or mechanics they find interesting and then exploring them until something coherent begins to emerge.

Back to Mary's essay, what kind of games did the girls want?

"The design partners report that if they were to choose what they wanted in a computer game, they would like action, they want to be challenged, they want to judge or compete, and they want to be scared. Many participants think that some sort of action, violence, or fighting should be in any good computer game. Extreme situations and narratives win out in our research over more traditional kinds of play."

That, uh, would've been my response, too.

I think a major difficulty concerning sexism and gaming is that there seem to be several different issues that people lump together into one broad stroke. I'll see if I can break at least a few out of the chunk. And yes, they are interrelated, but that doesn't make them the same.

1. Disparity of sexes in the video game industry. Very few females in high-technology industries at all.
2. Sexism in video games themselves. Characters, narratives and interactions that reinforce stereotypical gender roles.
3. Sexism in the way video games are marketed. Over-reliance on the 'sex sells' school of advertising.
4. Examining female gaming preferences and making games more appealing to women.
5. Sexual content in games is not the same as sexist content. Much of the challenge comes from familiarity with its use.

Concerning the first: It could be that this is indicative of social conditioning at large, that it's a mirror of prejudices about what type of subjects we encourage for which sexes. This definitely needs to be examined in detail. The issue here is one of education and awareness of our attitudes, especially if we are teachers and/or parents.

And if we are slotting females into roles that turn them away from the sciences (typically into the arts), how do we turn that around?

To catch it on the back end, we can alter the image of science as a non-creative, non-artistic endeavor (which I find to be a sad stereotype itself). Yes, I'm suggesting that we try to make things more equitable by playing to current stereotypes. Devious. Some universities are already offering degrees that give a solid grounding in technical matters while leaving space for creative electives.

Which, to me, seems like a decent start.

As for the actual game industry . . .

Obviously by encouraging more women into game development there will be more applying to companies and (hopefully) more working in the industry. But companies should also make some concessions (and admit that, yeah, there's a disparity, it doesn't mean you're evil) and work to present a workplace free from sexism. Make it obvious that juvenile behavior isn't tolerated, that sexual harassment isn't tolerated and that you will try your best to squelch immature sexual attitudes/behavior. Show that you value the input of all your employees, which means when someone suggests the female barbarian have larger boobs, look around the room and see if it really seems necessary.

To really figure out what kind of changes to make, guess what we need? We need women already in the industry to get very vocal about what problems exist, what should be done to correct them and how to prevent them from cropping up in the future.

Tangent to the first: My wife has expressed the notion, were we to have a female child, that the clothes, room, toys, everything to which we would expose our daughter would be rendered in pink, a color that is repugnant to me. She claims it is because she herself has a fondness for pink; I often counter that she is a brainwashed tool of a patriarchal culture. So we can see the difficulty inherent in erasing cultural tendencies.

Concerning the Second: This one often bogs me down. There is so much grey area here. We are talking about creative output, which certainly reflects stereotypes and prejudices, but that doesn't mean a generalization is implied. And anybody that would try to say that artist intent can be ignored is, well, possibly a Dadaist, but more likely talking out their ass (often the same thing).

What I'm trying to get at is that sometimes stories are just stories. A character is just a character. A cigar is just a cigar.

And sometimes that unrealistic portrayal of a woman cavorting through caverns is, well, just an artist's design of a character. They aren't trying to say anything in particular about society, or what we expect of women, or even what we expect of caverns (I am particularly distraught that all caverns do not yield fascinating historical treasures).

Art often yields idealizations of form, not just of both genders but of all things. Artists often build up from past templates, adding things that interest them but leaving in images that may be universally poignant. We see this in comic book superheroes, in street signs, in film, in the structures of musical genres, all over the damn place.

Of course, the other side of this lesson is that, no matter how much an artist fucking hates being misinterpreted, people are going to use their own opinions to project certain things on the artist's vision. Smart artists will be aware of this, and smart game designers will take notice as well. Check for gut reactions - they're important. You might think they're stupid, but not when you find out you've alienated at least half your market.

If I were making a game (such a big if, I know), and I noticed that when I showed it to female gamers they instantly reacted with an aversion response because the main character had impossible knockers or an 8i waist, would it really kill me to alter the design? It might be a problem if I waited until the end of the design cycle to check something like that, but if I, y'know, put some thought into it in the beginning, not so tough to fix.

It may be that, yes, in fact, the development team happens to be a group of males with juvenile ideas of how women act and what roles they should serve, and they allow those attitudes to creep insidiously into their art design. Or maybe it's just one or two or a few members of the team and they exercise more influence over the design than others (who may not even notice, truthfully). Then, yeah, that game is making a sexist statement. I'd hate to think that such a thing could happen on purpose, but it is possible (Duke Nukem I am looking in your direction).

We just have to be careful not to equate ignorance of an issue with deliberate expression of an -ism.

Like I said, this isn't a cut-and-dry issue. It takes work to discover a balance, and it's very easy to fuck up.

Some questions, then. Shinobi, Solid Snake, Sam Fischer are well-proportioned, muscular, graceful and highly-skilled. They have gruff exteriors, are solitary, predominantly expressionless, nearly emotionless. They are certainly presenting males with unrealistic expectations concerning physical appearance, conditioning, competence and demeanor. So are they sexist images? If not, is there something in their characterization that makes them more 'realistic' than their female equivalents? Do guys just not care about, or notice, male stereotypes in gaming?

A large part of the problem is that there is no conceivable way (I can think of) to determine exactly how much influence a game, or any media, is going to have on someone. Everyone will react differently. Some little girls might read fashion magazines and develop body dysmorphism; Others might read the same magazines and develop their own line of clothing. Likewise some women play Tomb Raider and are struck by how unrealistic an image Lara Croft presents; Others play and are struck by how competent she is, how athletic, how she is the hero of the game rather than victim. Determining where we cross the line from considering an image strong and beautiful to finding ourselves weak and ugly is not easy.

The caveat always seems to be, "Use your best judgment." It just sucks that our best judgment is often so poor.

Tangent to the second: As an avid writer-not-yet-author, I tend to write main characters that are male. When I do tackle writing as a female character, doubts start to creep in. Am I making her shallow? Am I missing some key component of the feminine experience? Will I be ranked as a misogynist for sloppy characterization? I don't worry so much about my male characters, but they're probably just as much at risk to be bad characters. It's just that nobody is going to claim I'm sexist if I have a guy fulfill traditional gender roles, because I am a guy (well, I'd say it's not likely to happen). But if I write about a woman who is meek and subservient, am I going to be accused of expecting that behavior from all women, of propagating that viewpoint? It may not happen. And I usually just decide, critics be damned, I'll write the story the best I can. That, unfortunately, doesn't make those issues irrelevant.

Concerning the third: This is the one that is the most clear to me. Everyone knows that advertisers are soulless hell-beasts that stoke their brimstone engines with paper money and human misery. They take note that, hey, guys like boobies (ooh, how clever) and butts (savvy!) so they slap those things all over stuff they think guys might buy.

Which means games get drenched with the flesh parade. It's a circular thing: The male gamer demographic is an established buyer segment so the advertising focuses on the male gamer demographic (skewed to heterosexuals, of course) so the male gamer demographic stays strong so the advertising focuses on the male gamer demographic.

As for guys like me, who claim that the advertising doesn't affect our purchases, that may be true. But we don't actively oppose the advertising. We don't vocally refuse to buy games that use sexually aggressive marketing. I shrug my shoulders and wonder at the gaming they might contain.

Unfortunately, the two easiest ways to engage the human brain are sex and violence. Once engaged, sure, you can spout whatever crap you want; It's that initial attention that's important to a marketer. Just about everything sold nowadays uses one or both of the "Big Two" in order to catch our interest.

If we want to reduce this tripe in video game marketing, I suggest getting organized. Point out the most offensive, demeaning shit that's shoved off on us, demand that advertisers wake up and realize that they don't need to try so hard. Show us some solid gameplay, interesting characters, maybe something to grab us emotionally just please, please, please . . . stop the coy, sexy females, the gritty, homicidal antiheroes, the if-it's-not-extreme-fuck-you attitudes, the "so good we're not stupid enough to believe they're real" graphical fake-outs, the endless, needless dick-waving and suck-it-bitch aggression-fests.

In summation, we know advertising is a lowest-common denominator ploy. The only way to raise its level is to put pressure on the source. Can we fix it (whatever that means - marketers would probably say it ain't broke)?

Doubtful, but I believe it is possible to demand, and get, a reduction in the crap that is driving away, not just women, but gamers in general. The ones that are turned off by advertising that presents very specific sexual stereotyping aimed at very specific sexual preferences that are held up as very specific sexual standards in our culture.

Whew. Now three times fast.

Tangent to the third: Most of what gets me about sexual advertising in the gaming world is what a narrow spectrum it represents. And this really does bear out in a lot of games. This is probably a whole 'nother essay, but I'll throw out a few musings. We are invariably presented with a one-man-one-woman totally-heterosexual world. Unless the developers slip in some wink-wink lesbian subtext - which is, still, for heterosexual men. This is more than just a cry of, "Oh, grow up!" A lot of changes are going to have to happen in-game first before we can get the advertisers to realize that, wow, there are other orientations?

Where are the, let's say, male characters confused about their own sexuality (other than Final Fantasy protagonists)? Where are Lara Croft's emotionally-broken ex-boyfriends? Where are the married couples/life partners (other than The Sims, and even then only if you make them that way)? Where are the fetishists that aren't painted as freaks? This is a call for more diversity in the love lives of virtual creations.

One thing I wonder about: Once we begin seeing homosexual protagonists in video games and advertising slated toward them, will we go the route of television and present them as just-another-stereotype? Something to ponder.

How about the next Madden cover shows a soft-focus shot of Peyton Manning patting Marcus Pollard on the ass, lovingly? I'd buy that for a dollar.

Concerning the fourth: This is the issue that's most interesting to me, aforementioned wannabe game designer. I'll admit to some confusion on my part about this one. Games are appealing to women. Check out this summary of a GDC panel focusing on female gamers.

The demographic information is incredibly hard to nail down, but near as I can figure the "casual games" market is dominated by woman. Older women, at that. The mobile games market typically reports a 50-50 split along gender lines. Numbers are not forthcoming about MMORPGs (that I can discover), but I'm going to hazard that women make up a good portion of players there, as well.

I think the key here is that what some would call the "mainstream" or "hardcore" market segment, i.e. the console/PC-shooter/rts/action/sports group (once again, categorization makes life difficult), is notably lacking in female gamers . And my big question is, "Who cares?"

Obviously there are people that care, and it would probably be a good idea to listen to them.

It's not a question of what do we have to do, what do we have to change about the industry, in order to get females to game. They're already gaming. In droves.

The questions, as I see them, are, "How do we make the core video game market more inclusive? How can we avoid getting shackled by formulaic concepts that only perpetuate the same tired stereotypes? What do we need to change about the content of our games, the way they are marketed and the way the industry operates in order to keep from alienating a huge segment of gamers?"

The answers to those questions would obviously be important from a marketer's perspective. But they should also be important to the developers. You want people to play your games. You want people to like them, so they'll continue to buy them, so you can continue to make them - because you fucking love it.

So I'm not interested in getting a bulleted list of "What do women gamers want?" Every time I see that question answered, it turns out they want the same damn things that all gamers want. We're knuckleheads for thinking otherwise.

I am interested in getting a list together of things to avoid. Nothing dogmatic, just some nice guidelines for maybe taking the slick sheen of testosterone off of a particularly masculinized design. Or displaying a lighter touch, maybe some sensitivity, in narrative instead of thickheaded, heavyhanded bravado. These qualities can be fine, if they serve the game, but they can be overdone and unnecessary, and some games add them out of habit.

All I can suggest is for game developers to really examine their games for patterns that might simply be oft-repeated cliches. Then, maybe, just tweak them a bit. In the next game, tweak them a little more. Re-arrange expectations. For male designers, try imagining your wife or girlfriend or mother in that female character's role, and see if it seems 'off' somehow. Think about every hackneyed plot you've complained about at the movies, every overused woman-in-peril hook - are you guilty of re-using them in your games?

Tangent to the fourth: My wife is an avid gamer. Probably just as much as I am. We tend to favor different games, though there's plenty of overlap. She spends a lot of time at MSN Games, especially on Text Twist, which we sometimes work on together. She loves the hundreds of variations of Solitaire that she ordered. She actually plays games on her phone (I can't stand doing so). We play "You Don't Know Jack" - but who doesn't? We play board games and card games together - Munchkin, Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Hex Hex. She doesn't like "mainstream" games because they're so often in 3-d, and she gets vertigo from 3-d representations. Though at times she will watch as I play through Grand Theft Auto, cheering as I mow down pedestrians and chiding me when I miss. I don't disparage her game-playing just because she doesn't go for the latest FPS. She's just as hardcore as Stevie Case.

Concerning the fifth: I won't go far with this point, but I feel it definitely merits an acknowledgment. We're still learning the limits and uses of sexual content in video games. Hell, we're still learning the limits in movies and television.

That's what we get for being a nation of prudes.

If we're talking about a game meant to be arousing, it can be hard to decide exactly what type of gameplay elements can best bring about such a state, and whether what you get is fun and stimulating and still a game. Because if it's solely fun, you could've just removed all the sex and re-made Zuma. And if it's solely stimulating, well, it's porn. Might as well put on a movie and free up the extra hand.

If we're talking about a game meant to be shocking, it can be hard to decide how much is necessary, if any. Hints of sexual misdeeds can serve a game's plot (Code Veronica's incest), but it isn't necessary to gives us visuals belaboring the point. Sure, the Japanese have (somehow) successfully marketed hentai games, but I'm not sure choose-your-own-adventures that end in violent cartoon sex can be considered a reasonable (or sane) use of sexual content.

The confusion with sexism results when characters or situations crop up in a game that present a shallow view of sexuality. When games show us women in skimpy, useless armor, or tout their hyperviolent slut (stripper moves! schoolgirl outfits!), it's really hard not to feel like developers are taking pandering to a whole greater depth.

I don't mind having my sexual tastes indulged by media. I do know that oversaturating your game with sexual imagery dulls the whole experience for me.

So where is the line? I really don't fucking know.

How do we determine what is gratuitous? Again, people have wildly different standards. We shouldn't have to please everybody. But it's nice to try not to offend.

As a suggestion, dial things back a bit. Use subtlety now and then. Make things sexy and not overtly sexual.

Shaky conclusion: As I said in the beginning of this post, I don't know how to design a game for a particular gender. If I were tasked with doing such a ludicrous thing, I'd probably resort to stereotypes, which is, in my estimation, how treacle like Barbie Horse Adventures get made (which is not meant to disparage the developers, only the stereotypes).

Which doesn't mean that you can't try and target your game. You'll probably do this no matter what, even if its not apparent to you; Most artists cater to an unseen audience. There's nothing wrong with trying to skew a game for girls. It's just that such games tend to resemble an amalgamation of what a 40-year old ad exec would say that girls want from a video game. The preconceptions are thrown into a mediocre game and propagate through the industry.

For me, the game's the thing. Well-crafted gameplay can (and if you're lucky, will) make players forget about sexual stereotypes and other prejudices/foolish notions. It will draw you in, even if it's just to get you to manipulate a deck of cards.

I know my views are optimistic (In other words, "hopelessly naive").

I realize the game industry isn't primarily composed of playful, creative designers that throw some revolutionary ideas to their development teams and then ascend to the heavens on beams of light. Molyneux, Crawford, Wright, Kojima, Miyamoto - we know these names because they are exceptional, in that they enjoy a great degree of freedom to make their playful, creative designs.

Much of the industry makes decisions based on both artistic and commercial considerations. That's just the way things happen. Commercial considerations often dictate ridiculous design decisions because "those elements were gold in the past." They're told to "make it pink, for girls," so they focus on fluff and ignore the core.

It will take developers with intestinal fortitude to start dictating their own terms for the future of gaming. They're definitely out there. And it will take consumers demanding the changes they constantly talk about with other gamers. And it will take the strength to examine our own prejudices and discuss them openly.

Supplemental Links:
-Sarah Wichlacz's article "Grrrl Gamez"-
-Quotes on sexual objectification-
-Lisa Pickoff White's Washington Times article-
-Sexism in Video Games-
-BBC article-

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