“I think to a great degree, we humans still divide ourselves into two species, even though we are monotypic. There are males and females. We see them as different and not equal. Things get better when women get more equality. That is a bit obvious but I think it leads to better results up the road. If it’s a man’s world as they say, then men, your world is a poorly run carnage fest.”
That was a bit from Henry Rollins’ blog post this week about the extraordinarily fucked up aftermath of the Steubenville verdict, which is worth the read if nothing else written in the next few paragraphs is. Now, this isn’t to draw the direct correlation of gaming being a prime example of said carnage fest. We all KNOW gaming is a carnage fest. Where I am drawing the direct correlation to is this idea of seeing women as “The Other”, the group of people holding the top spot on the list of things to be sorted by relationship to penis. That problem is the reason why smart women in particular have a serious problem with gaming, and also possibly the easiest thing to change.
I know it’s easy, because I saw it happen last week. Twice. And I’d like for it to keep happening. For those just tuning in, last week, a gentleman named Mike Mika got a simple question from his daughter while playing Donkey Kong with her: “How do I play as the girl?”. Because this gentleman just happened to be a game designer, he actually went in, hacked Donkey Kong so that Pauline is out to rescue Mario. Daughter happy, internet goes wild. A few days later, a blogger, inspired by Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women doc, gender swaps the original Zelda so that the Legend of Zelda is, for the first time, the story of Zelda, out to save Link. A woman is now given a sword, killing monsters and demons and smoke-hating dinosaurs. Uncharacteristically, Nintendo has been dead silent since. The hack she used, however, has been one of the most downloaded files this week.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the story of Jean-Max Morris, creative director of Capcom’s upcoming Remember Me, who, in an interview with Penny Arcade Report, talks about how he was shot down by multiple (though unnamed) publishers while shopping the idea for the game around, on the basis that no one will buy a game with a female protagonist. Meanwhile, back in reality, the new Tomb Raider, with a distinctly unsexualized Lara Croft, has broken a million copies sold worldwide.
These aren’t exactly the first faint glimmers that gamers are truly ready to level the playing field when it comes to letting women out of cages and support roles, and step to the front line. The problem has never been that gamers won’t play a game with a female lead, it’s that the industry hasn’t taken the shot in the dark and given us nearly enough chances to. The PA Report article actually has a subarticle buried within about the marketing budgets of games with female heroes/main characters. Brilliant, innovative stuff like Beyond Good And Evil, Mirror’s Edge, and Heavenly Sword have been released to critical acclaim, the gamers who end up actually playing them love them (OK, Mirror’s Edge less so, but even then, even the more cynical voices agree it’s a spectacular proof of concept), but it hasn’t resulted in sales. Which, if we just go by end result, fine, industry, I guess you’ve got a point. But that article sheds some light on the simple fact that none of these games were given the budget to reach the multitudes of gamers who, even to this day, might never have heard of any of the titles. The problem is that somehow, we’ve arrived at a point where gaming has been a boys’ club for so long it assumes girls aren’t interested, when in reality, its never really tried asking. Girls have long been either “The Second Option” or, as Anita Sarkeesian put it, “The Ball”.
Time’s come for a paradigm shift, and for all the gnashing of teeth that developers don’t know how to cater to girls, the easiest solution has been ever-present for years now. One that can start by looking no further than Metroid. This is a series that’s always had a decent marketing push behind it, sells well, and usually to critical acclaim. Even Other M managed to sail lazily along to the tune of a million copies. But no one really makes a big deal out of Metroid being a best selling franchise with a female protagonist because, generally, neither does the game. Until the bodysuit revealing endings, Samus being a girl doesn’t factor into the actual games until Other M. Samus being a girl is just a fact of life. Her femininity is normalized. Samus is not “The Other”. She simply is. Mass Effect works the same way. Bioware’s made no bones about the fact that there was no big talk about how to differentiate FemShep from BroShep, they simply gave Jennifer Hale the same dialogue sheet as Mark Meer, and let it ride. Granted, the fact that she *is* female changes the nature of her interactions, particularly in ME3, but even then, the variations aren’t so centered on her having a vagina as to make it a fundamental “girl’s game”. Saints Row has given a gender option from day one, and had a script designed around never mentioning the Boss’ gender or needing to even give him/her a name besides “Boss”. The result is an awesome game where if I want a tiny, purple-haired Asian hipster chick in a BBQ joint’s t-shirt as the head of all crime in Stillwater, I can. Amoral as that character is, it’s never a big deal because, again, the world doesn’t treat The Boss any different because she’s female.
This is your first and easiest agent of change, games industry. It requires no market research, or focus testing, or whathaveyou. You don’t have to spend any more on PR than you do now, but don’t spend a penny less. You don’t have to get inside a girl’s head or try to figure out her emotions, especially because, frankly, not nearly enough of you know how. Simple: You craft your badass military FPS, your fantasy RPG, your survival horror, your third person shooter. Make them strong, swear, take charge. Make them fuckups who persevere. Make them the heroes of destiny and hand them a magical sword. Make them cold blooded killers out for revenge. And then, for maybe 1 or 2 of those games? Change your hero’s name. No matter what you’ve written for them, no matter what they were doing when you created it. Switch it around, and NEVER MENTION IT. No need to have someone call her a bitch. No need to show her crying. No need to change a damned thing you’re doing right now. Change a name, maybe draw some breasts on a character model. That’s all.
As it is with most things, Hank is right. This is obvious, but important, because the times we stop counting women in with “All men are created equal” is what gets us into trouble as a species. If our entertainment is reinforcing for us early that women aren’t good enough to step out of the shadows and save the world once in a while, it’s not too much of a jump to think she’s not worth the other privileges guys get to enjoy. Like, say, not getting sexually assaulted by one’s peers then have the news talk about what a tragedy it is that the perps won’t go to college.
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