Sex, Sexism, and the quest for gender-centric identity in GameLand
“Gender is performance anyway.” – Matt Boch, Harmonix (as quoted by Leigh Alexander @ Nexus)
I am an aspiring narrative designer hoping to carve a niche in the intrepid world of games. I dream of a French New Wave variant in the world of games where we can discuss more “art-house” topics such as sexuality, intimacy, love, memory etc… in a mature way. But saying things like that on a games blog as a woman will propably just get me nasty comments about aprons or sandwiches or both (just read the comments section of this blog). This phenomenon warrants closer observation, because by God that can’t be normal! Or acceptable, right? Right? Er…
As a woman hoping to enter the game-industry, I am often shocked and disgusted by some of the comments that women bloggers get, add to that the usual jokes made about female game designers and their many inadequacies, all as casual banter. Some of these things make me reconsider my life trajectory and wonder, is it really worth fighting for? Another boy’s club, why even bother, why even care? More than my own petulant life-crisii, I am curious to know how other female game designers deal with this sort of situation. Is it even a real problem? If not, why are so many people talking about it, and where do we draw the line between being crazy militant feminists, and just normal vocal females looking to be treated with respect?
This blog post was a curious journey if anything which started off as a response to a little article in Forbes about “the tragedy of rampant sexism in video games”. Ed Kain wrote a somewhat reactive post about the problems of gender bias in video games, quoting the issue of Vette, the Slave Girl given to the Sith warrior class, in Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG, where he demands that game companies be more responsible, and AVOID such a situation from occurring again and again. This little matter of “avoiding situations” is what rankled my nerves for one. At the time, I felt like an interesting conversation opportunity had been created with fans of the film-series, canonical literature and the games commenting surprisingly thoughtfully about the meta-narrative of the Star Wars Universe. The prime argument by the commenters was that the series is misogynistic at it’s core, especially the Sith community, which revels in it its Rand-ian virtues of selfishness and ill-treatment of all; and in order to make a realistic cannon game BioWare had no choice in the matter. As a late Star Wars convert, I have a new converts fervor for the series, and could see the valid points here. The Sith are a self-centered and negative group, so of course they need to underline that by torturing their slaves, who happen to be women. When it rains, it pours and all that.
I still stand by my initial reaction against a censorship-based model (as was obtuesly suggested by Mr. Kain) in game content. That won’t do anyone any good, it never has. All censorship does is create more repression, leading to more bull-shit. However, an important takeaway from Mr. Kain’s post, and what I think he originally intended to discuss is the need to encourage more women to participate in “gamer culture”, and making it less critical of their participation in it. If we have more women working in games, not just the indie ones, but wide-reaching commercial ones, then women might have a chance to be part of the initial sculpting phase of a game, and introduce a fresh perspective to the rote representational debate. This bring me to this great article by Mark Sorrell, which made me think about the ingrained, often humorous disregard of women in games.
Does a traditionally male-centric cultural group make women behave strangely? Do we feel the need to sit down and accept more and more, to be “one of the guys”? Can we be “one of the ladies” and still be cool? Will our opinions be considered, critiqued and discussed like those of our male colleagues? Do we eventually need to “go make a sandwich”?
Negative comments aimed at female bloggers, and the poor treatment of women gamers create an unfriendly environment that makes me think that it is a very inhospitable world out there for women in games. As a woman about to embark upon a career in games, this makes me very worried. Parsons has a lot of great female game designers and teachers, who are wonderful role-models in this respect, but one has to wonder, what lies outside of the sanctuary of Parsons, and is it really worth taking on the beast of sexism, is it is as pervasive as blog posts like Mark Sorrell’s would have us believe? (This is certainly not a critique of Mr. Sorrell’s post, which introduced me to a whole other parallel universe of sexism in the otherwise enticing world of games.)
Margaret Robertson’s wonderful article on Kotaku in which she dosen’t try writing like a man, made me realize some things about myself. As an on-and-off feminist, why am I more and more accepting of casual misogyny, and willing to contort my opinions to “fit-in”? It is a perplexing question. I always pick on character representations on T.V. who overcompensate for being women by being overtly masculine; so could I unconsciously be channeling the same? Was I more accepting of “sexist jokes” to maintain my “rational” un-crazy stance and credibility in the sexism debate?
Film and video-games share a similar reputation and trajectory. Both began as purely entertainment media, and film for one has aged into a more respectable medium after nearly a century of trial and error (the evolution still continues and is far from complete). I recommend reading the Hulk’s great article discussing this overlap and divergence. The key point here is to encourage a diversification of genres. Indie-games are certainly making moves in that direction, and it is evident in the rich and diverse alternative that it offers to commercial games and gamers.
However, one cannot exist without the other. Films have action-films, romantic comedy, art cinema any many many other genres, coexisting and each having their own audience and creating interesting dialogue and discussion between themselves. So the question is, can this happen in games? Can there be more commercially viable game genres than the ones “aimed at teenage boys”, and can commercial game culture ever truly embrace diversity? Will GameLand ever truly want me?