So a recent issue – and one which I intend to spend more time on at a future date when I have time – has come up since the release of the cover art for Bioshock Infinite (which you can see here at the announcement). If you know nothing about the game, you might look at the cover image and say, “so what?”
Here’s the kicker. Most of the game is spent protecting and being helped by an NPC (non-player character) named Elizabeth. You never see yourself (the player-character whose shotgun-wielding self is depicted – presumably – on the box), but you will spend most of the game staring at her. And she doesn’t even show up in the background on the cover.
Why not? Apparently, because, Matt Hawkins at Gameranx notes, “Mostly the reasoning behing [sic] it, which according to creator Ken Levine, is a means to target the ‘frat boys’ demographic.” If that is the truth, then the cover art is offensive not only because of the rather glaring lack of the female protagonist, but because it has just suggested that players are stereotypical “frat boys.” I, for one, do not consider myself a “frat boy” in any sense of the term, derogatory or no. But Hawkins’ article isn’t actually about Infinite’s cover, which apparently garnered so much disgust that Irrational is holding a cover art contest to make the cover “reversible.”
Hawkins points out that while Irrational may be catering to the proverbial “common denominator,” Naughty Dog (to which, I might point out, Nate Wells went when he left Irrational) is refusing to allow its publisher to make the same misogynist error and is insisting that the protagonist – Ellie – of their new title be left on the cover art. In fact, Naughty Dog’s director, Neil Druckmann, is quoted in the piece as saying, “I believe there’s a misconception that if you put a girl or a woman on the cover, the game will sell less. I know I’ve been in discussions where we’ve been asked to push Ellie to the back and everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused.”
As Hawkins suggests, “Naughty Dog should be applauded for sticking to their guns,” but, he continues, “one fears the possibility of sales being hurt by such a noble stance. Unfortunately, numbers do not lie, and there are stats that does [sic] show that many gamers will not touch a game if there is a female on the cover. Yes, even in the year 2012.” While Hawkins may be right (his grammatical and spelling errors aside), it strikes me as though part of the reason gamers won’t pick up such games is that the games they want to play have never traditionally featured women… and so they have come to associate women on the cover with games that they don’t want to play.
But I bet they’d still buy Modern Warfare if the next version features a female soldier because they trust it. And I think that Bioshock Infinite probably has enough of a fan base at this point that it can afford to do what many smaller franchises cannot – to do what’s right for its fans and the game, rather than capitulating to the stereotypes pushed on its fans by the marketing industry. (After all, the fans were upset enough to call for a new cover to begin with…)