The gaming industry has come under fire for years now about a variety of issues. Today’s installment of TL;DR will focus on the big ones, and try to show the outside world, including certain news organizations who oh-so-gleefully get their kicks vilifying the industry by spreading baseless, fact-less misinformation, that game makers are actually deserving of praise for the positive steps they’ve taken in just a single generation of consoles. While we’ve still got a ways to go in many aspects, I’m here to prove the industry itself shouldn’t be responsible for shouldering this entire burden, and if need be I’ll point the finger back on those would-be whistleblowers for throwing gas on the raging flames our industry is in the process of putting out. This one’s going to get hot and heavy folks, so if you’ve got an opinion on this matter, prepare to feel the entire spectrum of emotions throughout the duration. I don’t feel I can come up with an adequate battle cry to encapsulate the importance of this topic, so I’m just going to give you the old, “once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” and call it an intro.
There’s no way to get around this one so let’s just get it over with; let’s talk about the representation of women in video games. By now I’m sure you’ve seen, or at least heard, of Anita Sarkeesian’s new Tropes vs. Women in video games series. Since she very clearly wants to be the leading lady in support of female empowerment, let’s look at her argument and see where the dust settles. To get a sense of some basic counterpoints to her argument, check out this video by Genki. Sarkeesian’s piece goes out of its way to vilify the gaming industry as one that consciously decides to put women down and champion sexism. She spends the majority of the first video either harping on Nintendo specifically or showing montages of decades-old games. Here is the focus point of her inaugural episode:
Nintendo constantly falls back on the damsel in distress trope and uses it to objectify women, portraying them as powerless and incapable of protecting themselves. As Genki points out, a lot of this is because of two reasons: One, in the early days, Nintendo was even less concerned about telling stories than they are now. Shigeru Miyamoto is a legendary designer and his focus has always been about one thing: the gameplay. It doesn’t matter why the player is in whatever situation they’re in; just boot the game, give them a few-second intro to offer some basic background, and quickly throw them into the action and let them have fun. Why weren’t there more women as protagonists? Because of technical limitations, a key factor Sarkeesian doesn’t seem to want to address. Hell, the only reason Mario even had a mustache was because it was less work and Nintendo couldn’t animate his face otherwise. Luigi became an obvious choice for a second player, as opposed to creating a female character, because it was much more reasonable, and possible within the technology’s constraints, to simply palette-swap Mario for his “brother”. Curiously, she throws titles like Fox, Zelda, and Mario under the bus, but I don’t recall seeing mention of a little title a few of you may remember called Metroid. That whole bit she gives about changing Dinosaur Planet to Starfox Adventures because Nintendo wanted to disempower women is absurd. As Genki pointed out, it’s a business strategy. Why would Nintendo take the chance of introducing a brand new IP featuring a female FOX protagonist that would take a lot of effort to market, when they could slap good ol’ McCloud’s face on the cover and effectively turn the game into a legal money printing machine? No business is going to turn away free money, not the ones that plan on staying around anyway.
The second reason for the popularity of the damsel in distress trope can be traced back to the existence and popularity of arcades. So what do we know about arcades? Well, they were filled with machines designed specifically to be brutally difficult and suck up kids’ quarters. They were also designed specifically to do one other thing: Get straight to the action. Considering the time period when Mario and Zelda first came around, an age where arcades were still popular, young males were not only the focus group, but they were impatient as well. All they wanted games to do was give them a singular purpose, and send them on their way. And you better believe there’s no greater singular purpose for most young males than winning the affection and admiration of a female by completing some heroic quest. Is that sexist? Perhaps, but it’s a matter of perception. For Nintendo, and the game industry, it’s simply good business. Remember this point, because I’ll have more justification for it later on. I’m purposefully withholding my main points for after each individual industry problem has been discussed and will wrap up by providing my justifications.
So, where is the gaming industry at today? Have we made any progress with female protagonists and empowering female characters? You better freaking believe it. As technology has become more advanced, games have begun to shift focus a bit. No longer are they tethered to the arcade mentality of “going in guns blazing”. We’re focused more on narrative and emotion, telling players a story and introducing them to entire new worlds of imagination and creativity. No one ever left the arcade thinking about how amazing the world of “Mortal Kombat” was, but there’s not one person today who plays BioShock without becoming enthralled in the wonderment of Rapture. The game companies that have the money to take chances on new IPs and take bold stances on political issues are doing so, and that’s not only worth mentioning, but praising as well.
Think of some of the best games of this generation, and also the one’s the industry is greatly anticipating. Do I really need to explain how Mass Effect effectively empowers all their female characters? Well, I’m going to so MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t played through the trilogy. From the ass-kicking Miranda, to the hacking extraordinaire and current Shadow Broker Liara T’Soni, and my personal favorite stealthy thief Kasumi Goto, these women are, like Wolverine, the best there is at what they do. How about star-soldier Ashley Williams and her rise through the ranks to becoming a SPECTRE? And that’s not even mentioning the fact that you can choose to play with a female protagonist of your own design. END OF SPOILERS.
Think about Uncharted, a game which features, let’s be honest, a bumbling fool of a protagonist who is curiously adept with every firearm known to man. Nathan Drake wouldn’t get very far if it weren’t for the resourceful women in his life to help him through, showing off their own combat skills when necessary. How about Heavenly Sword? Nariko can certainly handle herself in a fight and relies on only her own abilities to complete her journey. The world of Dragon Age features countless powerful women who are more than capable of taking care of themselves. Do the women I’ve mentioned get into trouble and occasionally need help? Sure, but what male protagonist doesn’t? The heroes of today’s games are flawed, sometimes even broken, and need help from those closest to them to realize their true potential. Hell, even the Chief needs Cortana to pull his ass out of the fire one more than one occasion.
As far as the games of the future, let’s take a look at what’s on tap. There’s Remember Me, Capcom’s action-adventure title featuring female protagonist Nilin, who (as Anita Sarkeesian should surely enjoy) begins her adventure by breaking herself out of captivity, an incredible feat once thought to only be achievable by men. Then there’s The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s much anticipated title featuring the very capable Ellie, voiced by Ashley Johnson. Ellie isn’t just some frustrating escort mission, she’s integral to the plot, and Joel wouldn’t be able to survive the adventure without her. I don’t mean integral as in she serves as a power up, an object with which we solve puzzles to advance the area. I mean that Ellie is a core pillar of the story. She’s not just some promise Joel made to his buddy and now feels obligated to protect; her instincts and good-nature keep Joel grounded and alive throughout the story. Then, of course, there’s Quantic Dream’s upcoming Beyond: Two Souls, otherwise known as “that game with Ellen Page”. David Cage is all about connecting with gamers on an emotional level. Mock him all you like, but he’s trying to give games the opportunity to defend themselves; telling great stories that appeal to the core of humans, making their appeal universal.
Let’s put a cork in this and come back to it in a bit. There are a few other issues facing the gaming industry that we need to get through, and my solutions will make up a section all their own, so it’s time we shifted focus.
Now that video games are mainstream and reach a broader audience than ever before, we’re facing entirely new sets of problems. The media is hounding us about violence in games, blaming the industry for turning kids into killers every chance they get. Industry vet Adam Sessler did a fantastic job trying to defend our side of the argument, but his claims seem to fall on deaf ears. So what kind of case is there that violence in games are desensitizing kids to violence and enabling these horrific, violent outbursts? Honestly, there is no case. Let me bring up a couple points about this issue. First, and most importantly, your brain DOES recognize the difference between real and fantasy violence.
I can’t make a better case than Jim Sterling did in a recent episode of The Jimquisition, but be warned, it contains extreme, graphic, real-life violence, and that’s exactly his point. Our laws currently allow us to broadcast commercials for our most violent games during prime time TV; but the second we show real violence, real death on video, we have to jump through all kinds of hoops for approval, plus put up an age gate and also take an entire minute to explain how unsuitable this content is and that viewer discretion is advised. Why do you think that is? It’s because no matter how much death you’ve seen in Call of Duty, no matter how fantastically gratuitous of a fatality you perform in Mortal Kombat, and regardless of however Kratos chooses to slay his latest victim in God of War, there is a major difference between fantasy violence and seeing actual death, and your brain knows it. How many gamers do you know suffer from PTSD simply from playing too much Battlefield? None, yet soldiers who’ve seen real war come back shadows of the men they used to be. Remember in high school when your history professor had to get parents to sign permission slips to show footage of the Kennedy assassination? Seeing real violence is a traumatic experience, and video games are nowhere near the same league. Sessler said it best when he said the competition in video games, no matter if they are single-player or multiplayer, causes aggression at best, and that these games have ratings for a reason.
Which brings me to my second point about violence in games: Parents have to assume greater responsibility. Video games aren’t just something you can sweep under the rug anymore. Every kid plays games. They play them on Mommy’s smartphone, they play them on Daddy’s tablet, and they play them on their own Leapster or DS. Kids are growing up with games as a major part of the information they absorb, and so parents need to recognize the importance of the role games will play in their child’s development. Older generations grew up watching Sesame Street, now kids grow up playing Sesame Street. This means that it’s up to the parents to control the types of games children have access to. “Just because all of their friends have it” is not justification enough to buy your kids Call of Duty when they’re only eight-years-old. “Well, they’re only killing aliens who bleed purple” does not make Halo an appropriate game for a ten-year-old. If your child starts swearing and talking back to you when it’s time for bed because he’s too busy playing Grand Theft Auto, then guess what? That’s on you, Mom. Because the laws clearly state that M-rated games cannot be sold to folks under seventeen, so someone age-appropriate bought that game before your child got a hold of it. Of course, parents can’t be responsible for everything, which is why we have ratings in the first place, but it’s time to stop pretending like games are just some nonsense toys for children and actively educate yourselves on what exactly it is your kids are doing with their free time.
One final issue with the gaming industry, and this one’s a bit more lighthearted I promise, is the growing division between “hardcore” and casual gamers. Core gamers are the ones that have grown up with games, the folks who earned their stripes back when “blast processing” meant “mine’s bigger than yours.” The casual crowd, the one Nintendo welcomed with such open arms at the cost of years of bitter loyalists crying foul, are the ones who love Angry Birds and Wii Sports but look at you funny for wearing a T-shirt that reads “All your base are belong to us” or “Welcome to die!” They don’t have the years of assimilation and culture we devoured in the name of our favorite hobby, and for that we wrongfully fault them. Cliff Bleszinksi recently wrote an excellent blog about bullying in the gaming industry, which I think has gotten worse since the splintering of our community into “cores” and “casuals.” He discusses the overabundance of racism, homophobia, and rampant sexism that fill our headsets whenever we’re online. He also points out how we should be the last crowd to encourage bullying, considering we’re the ones who got bullied for our hobby. We were the dorks and geeks who skipped prom to play D&D, the ones who faked being sick so we could pick up the new Super Smash Bros.
So why are we so quick to push out the casuals and mark our territory in the gaming space? Why do we thumb our noses at the folks who play Cut the Rope and Fruit Ninja, telling them they’re not “real” gamers? I think it’s because the gaming landscape is changing to compensate for its new broader appeal, and the core crowd feels a little left out to dry. All of a sudden we’re the middle child: Mom and Dad are so proud of the oldest son for becoming successful, and absolutely adore every little burp that comes out of baby sister; but where’s the love for us? John Gibson, the president of Tripwire Interactive recently spoke about compressing the skill gap in today’s modern shooters. It basically boils down to the fact that today’s games are easier than ever before because they have to appeal to a wider audience. It’s not about draining kid’s pockets of all their quarters; it’s about mass market appeal. Core gamers feel that their longtime loyalty to our hobby should be validated, and so far all they’ve gotten is generic FPSs, a truck-load of shovelware on the Wii, and developers diverting resources to work on mobile platforms and second-screen experiences instead of dedicated single-player console extravaganzas. Games that used to be single-player, story-driven experiences now contain tacked-on multiplayer as a way of dolling themselves up for the mainstream Call of Duty crowd that would never bother playing a game they couldn’t enjoy online with buddies.
All of this basically means we’ve begun turning our frustrations outward onto the community, which is certainly inexcusable. Trash talking happens in any competitive activity, but the shroud of anonymity brings out the absolute worst in gamers. I’d be interested to see how much trash talking stems from the core crowd, and how much of it is actually fueled by the casuals who only play Call of Duty each year and nothing else. There’s an interesting study, albeit one that further subdivides us as a community. Maybe it’s not such a good idea after all. I guess the call to arms here is that we as a community can never convince the outside world and the media that gamers aren’t the monsters we’re made out to be if we can’t even stop fighting amongst ourselves. I know the natural competitiveness of gaming, fueled by high scores and leaderboards, makes you want to prove you’re better than everyone else, but at the end of the day we’re all gamers working towards the same goal: To play great games, hone our abilities, and hopefully, to have fun.
Alright, the issues have been identified, so now it’s time to dish out my defense of the industry: The gaming industry is still young, infantile even compared to more traditional forms of entertainment. There are going to be severe growing pains, especially given our humble origins. Gamers were born in an age where men were the programmers and developers who studied computing and graphic design. This industry was built during a time when the only people who were playing games were young males. So we channeled their wants and desires and catered to them, ensuring they would crave what we were selling. We put women in peril and dared our muscular heroes to risk life and limb all for the sweet taste of gratitude and acceptance. We didn’t have much to work with technologically speaking, so we kept our visuals straightforward and our stories minimal. We cut corners whenever possible. We palette-swapped characters and called them second players. And when that formula found success, everyone flocked to it. Just as all competitive businesses do; when one succeeds the rest all try to emulate that success.
But here we are, just a few decades later. We have an industry where women are finally joining the ranks as developers, programmers, writers, and even creative directors. We’re broadening our appeal and telling stories that are universal to humans, not just ones that are targeted at men. We’ve got games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Beyond: Two Souls, Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy XIII and more putting fully-clothed women front and center; empowering them and teaching girls that they have the inner strength to overcome any hardship. We have companies like EA championing all-inclusiveness, actively promoting LGBT awareness and going on record saying they support these communities. We’re creating all sorts of live-stream charities and free-to-play arcades to do our part in giving back to the larger community. We’re making blogs about how games saved our lives and give us the strength to overcome our own personal demons. The companies like Capcom and EA that have the resources to take chances on new IPs are doing so with projects like Remember Me. And how are we rewarding these companies? With hatred and backlash every time they try to take a one progressive step forward.
Right now, our industry is caught in the middle of an impossible choice. We can either go back to the way things always were, falling back on tropes that have proven to be profitable, resulting in being called sexist by the likes of Anita Sarkeesian. Or we can be more progressive, allowing gay and transgender characters into our worlds. We can let players choose who to romance, and then be berated for exposing children to homosexuality, or segregating characters on a “gay planet.” Even gamers themselves are sabotaging Metacritic scores for games that include optional gay romances. Were all of these attempts executed perfectly? No, but the fact that the industry is trying at all, which by the way is more than any other entertainment medium can say, is reason enough to praise them, not vilify them. So I ask you, what is the industry supposed to do? Publishers and developers are getting burned at both ends; we can’t go back to the narrow-minded way things used to be back in the late-80s and early-90s, nor apparently can we take progressive steps without facing criticism from both the media and our own community. If you were a publisher, and you knew the media was going to come after you anyway, wouldn’t the smart business move be to stick with what will guarantee you a tidy profit? Instead, companies are biting the bullet in the name of inclusiveness and progressiveness and being burned at the stake for it. How is that okay?
Even worse than that, the media loves to boast about how video games aren’t important and that they’re just toys for children, but then have the nerve to say children’s brains are being fundamentally altered to perceive fantasy violence as real. Yet, those charities and heart-warming game-related stories I mentioned above? Major news outlets don’t cover any of it. Not one story about the free-to-play Sandy Hook Arcade Center for folks who live in Newtown. Not a moment of coverage for the constant live-stream events we do, partnering with charities like Toys for Tots, Operation: Supply Drop, or even the indie Humble Bundles which let you choose the charity you like. EA is criticized for taking a stance of inclusiveness concerning the LGBT community, receiving threats of boycotts in response to their equal-opportunity-employment attitude. I’ll be the first to admit EA gets away with a crap-ton of sleazy business tactics; from always-on DRM, to microtransactions, to their treatment of the smaller studios they absorb, they simply disgust me at times. But for this, for supporting inclusiveness, they receive hate? Are you freaking kidding me people? Do games matter or don’t they? Do you actually want games to take progressive steps and empower females or not? Because your hateful comments and accusations say one thing, and the silent votes you cast with your dollars say another.
So far as I can tell, in this generation alone, we’ve taken some incredible steps toward better storytelling. Women have started to find their way into the workplace, in crucial developmental roles; leading to more accurate, empowering portrayals of women in gaming. Games have been given a much broader appeal, sure, but that’s what titles like Dark Souls are for. That one’s just for you, core gamers. And please, Nintendo hasn’t forgotten about you, they’re just trying to usher in a new age and cater to the overwhelmingly large new audience that expects a lot from them after the success of the Wii.
So, here’s what I propose: Let’s stop bickering amongst ourselves. Let’s avoid telling each other to stop playing games because we “suck” and instead spam the hell out of NBC, CNN and Fox News whenever there’s a game-related charity event happening that we demand should be covered. Let’s stop boycotting companies because they take an inclusive political stance you don’t support; because this isn’t about religion, it’s about acceptance. I’m not asking you to accept homosexuality or support gay marriage; I’m asking you to support and accept progress. Because whether you like it or not, these types of people exist, and they have every right to enjoy games they can relate to as much as anyone else.
Stop passing up quality game experiences specifically because they feature a female protagonist, because if you do, you’re the one being sexist. Don’t just cry foul when a game objectifies women, stand up and support the games that cast a positive spotlight on women in gaming. Businesses exist to make a profit, and you’ll have to drag them kicking-and-screaming if you want them to change. We’ve seen it before with the advent of the internet. We’ve seen the ridiculous lengths networks will go to just to throttle web-streaming and destroy content sharing; because they have no idea how to combat it and they are afraid of change. If we truly want video game companies to become more progressive, we have to vote with our dollars and praise them for their efforts, not let the media shun and vilify them.
Alright, that started getting a bit preachy so I think it’s time I took a break. As you can see, these issues are crucial in shaping the future of our industry, and considering we’re on the cusp of a brand new generation of consoles, now is the time to speak up about it. Usually, down here at the end is where I ask you folks a series of questions to try and get you involved, but I think these issues are hot-button enough that you’ve got your own ideas on what to comment about. So, let’s talk. Let’s change the gaming industry, right here, right now. Let’s expose every fault with the way games are today, and provide realistic solutions of how to fix things for the better. I only ask one thing: Be respectful, and mindful, of others. Don’t put down anyone else’s idea. Let this section be a safe haven for the folks who were previously to afraid to voice their opinion. Prove to the media and the nonbelievers out there that we aren’t terrible monsters who feed on sexism and racism. Show them we can be better than they expect. Prove me right.
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