Default Male

So – unsurprisingly to regular readers who know how much of a BioWare freak I am – I’ve been replaying the Mass Effect trilogy (with a break in there to play Dragon Age IIfor work), and have finally made it back to the third game and its post-release DLC, none of which I’d previously played. Everyone has been telling me that “Leviathan” and “Omega” are fine, but that “Citadel” is the one to play. Okay. I haven’t actually finished either “Leviathan” or “Citadel” yet (or started “Citadel” at all), but I finished “Omega” yesterday.

It’s led me to several realizations. First, I thought it was pretty damn good. It’s a foray into survival-horror that actually made me a little paranoid (in the dark, creepy groans, ammo everywhere – the guarantee to any experienced gamer that something is about to come after you, and one of my companions having a slight mental breakdown while the other yells at her), and it spends a lot of time reminding the player that while Shepard is running around shooting everything that moves, somewhere in the background there are millions of civilians dying.

All that is good. But Nyreen Kantros was awesome. Nyreen is a turian, an alien species any Mass Effect player is familiar with, as one of the repeat companions from all three games (Garrus Vakarian) is also turian. One of the things that makes Nyreen stand out is her gender – she’s the first female turian to appear in a species that seems by all accounts to be fairly gender-egalitarian. In Mass Effect 2, Garrus even talks about women in the turian military as fundamentally equal to men – but we haven’t seen any until “Omega.” Nyreen is also anything but a damsel in distress and rivals Aria T’Loak (the ostensible mistress of Omega, an asari) in terms of abilities and toughness (also, they were apparently once a “thing”). She’s smart, capable, powerful, and leads a mercenary group known as the Talons, most of whom appear to be male and have no problem calling her “boss.”

In fact, “Omega” is all about powerful women – Aria and Nyreen may be diametric opposites when it comes to motivation (Aria is ambitious and cold, and Nyreen is about as “paragon” as you can get), but both are independent, intelligent, and no-nonsense. And (along with Shepard) they defeat a male enemy by outsmarting and out-gunning him.

But “Omega” made me realize part of what the problem is with gender in games. It isn’t that developers think men are better or stronger or smarter than women. It’s that they don’t think about making women. Nyreen, for instance, was created in part because fans wanted to know what a female turian looked like. I will bet anything that a group of developers sat around a table and went, “Huh. Why didn’t we ever think about that?” It certainly made me think “Why didn’t I ever think about that?” because, especially as a feminist female gamer, I should have wondered what a female turian or a female krogan (one of whom appears for the first time – alive and visible – in Mass Effect 3) looked like. Or a female drell or hanar or elcor or volus or vorcha (still don’t know those, although we have known what a female salarian looks like).

I’m not saying this to criticize BioWare. They have an entire female species (asari), and they’ve done an admirable job of gender-balancing the Normandy crew (even if it does also have what looks like a sex-bot as an AI). The chief medical officer is a woman (Karen Chakwas), one of the two (ex)Cerberus engineers is a woman (Gabby Daniels), the yeoman is a woman (Kelly Chambers or Samantha Trainor), Liara T’Soni, Miranda Lawson, Samara, Ashley Williams, Diana Allers, several random crew members, and – of course – the possibility of Shepard. Both good and evil characters are women and men and… other. But their aliens by and large default male.

The problem isn’t inherent misogyny. The problem is simply that our default in Western society is male. And if our default is male, then our heroes are male, our villains are male (usually), and, of course, our player-characters and “default” aliens are also male. We have to consciously think about inserting women into games and other stories because they quite simply aren’t the default unless you need victims, mothers, or sex-objects. So what needs to change isn’t just games. It’s all of society – we need to start defaulting neutral, and then consciously making the decision what gender we want our characters and our heroes to be.

TLF: Still Waiting for Superman

So this is not a post about videogames, board games, or any kind of games. It is a post about the new Superman movie, Man of Steel.

I wrote up a full review for TLF, even though I’m not their movie person (or even one of their several movie people). As I understand it, TLF will be running more Superman-related posts in the near future, so be sure to check back.

Two Kotaku writers also wrote up their thoughts on Man of Steel here. Now it seems from this comparison that there might be a gender-divide on liking or disliking the movie, although Evan at Kotaku has some issues with Superman’s “darkness.” I have to admit, that’s one of the few things I did like – that he seemed a bit traumatized by being a complete freak and an ALIEN, alone, on a planet that didn’t understand him and that his father had convinced him would reject and try to kill him if he revealed himself. Seems likely to produce some darkness to me.

But having spoken to other men who saw the movie, some of them – like my husband – didn’t like Man of Steel for at least some of the same reasons I didn’t like it. And I liked some of the things – namely, the early parts of the film on Krypton – that Evan and Mike did. I also see how they think Lois could be a legitimate reporter (she’s definitely an improvement)… but when two male gamers comment on her repeated rescues, you know the frequency of damsel-in-distress may be a bit excessive.

But that’s enough for this blog – to see my full thoughts, go to TLF.

Gaming Lag

I’ve held off posting on E3 for the last couple of days because I’ve been struggling with my opinion, with what I feel I “should” say as a feminist, and fatigue with the whole debate on gender in games and the gaming community. Between Anita Sarkeesian, the trolls bombarding her twitter with insulting and idiotic comments, stories and snark about “Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon,” and my own personal dislike of pushing political agendae on other people, I’m getting really, really sick of this whole thing.

And that actually is starting to worry me, so I’m forcing myself to articulate an opinion so that I don’t become complacent and apathetic out of sheer ideological exhaustion.

Here’s the recap for those of you unfamiliar with what’s going on. In the midst of hundreds of discussions about female gamers, women in the tech industry, sexism in the media, and the need for more women’s voices, Microsoft launched its Xbox One at E3 with absolutely no new games with female protagonists. Sony, despite claiming it wanted to market to women, launched the PS4 with no new games with female protagonists. There are new games – Mirror’s Edge 2 – starring women, but they’re not exclusive launch titles (it will be available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC). Nintendo, however, announced that Princess Peach would be a playable character in the new Super Mario World 3D on the Wii U. Interestingly, this appears to have been a rather last minute change.

Okay, so we have two next-gen console releases, neither with a major exclusive title featuring a female protagonist, and one already-released console that shoe-horned Peach into the game at the last minute. And all this comes in the midst of one of the largest cultural pushes from women in the industry demanding equality and increased representation as players, characters, and professionals. So what does this tell us?

I don’t think that this means that the evil Men in charge of the industry are completely oblivious to the yelling and screaming going on outside their windows. I don’t think it means that they’re unaware of the female demographic that makes up 47% of their consumer base. I think what it tells us is that the gaming industry is suffering from lag.

Most major AAA titles take about five years to make. Five years. Some can get churned out in two or three if they’re sequels reusing the same engine. But next-gen consoles aren’t going to reuse the same engine, in all likelihood, so these games are probably already three (or more) years in the making, looking forward to release in another one to two years. They haven’t been “listening” to the demand because they’ve already been in production.

I do not believe this is an excuse for not including any women as protagonists, nor do I think that it means that women should “shut up” (to quote one of the anti-Sarkeesian tweets) about women being featured in games. I especially don’t think it excuses the absence of female presenters or developers on the E3 stage, or the recognition that women do make up 47% of gamers. But I do think that it explains what we’re seeing in terms of titles.

And that brings me to another point. Many of the anti-Sarkeesianites suggest that this is because women only want to play “cleaning and cooking” games. While I’m sure that such comments are intended as exemplars of masculine wit, I would like to point out that 47% of games are not cooking and cleaning games, which leads me to the induction that women are playing shooters, RPGs, and other “manly” games, some of which – like Tomb Raider or Remember Me – feature female leads, or at least include gender choice, as in BioWare and Bethesda games.

But many anti-Sarkeesianites make a point that, while based in a sexist code, is valid, and much more reasonably articulated by the Digital Changeling. The point is that many of the lead characters we see in games are physically strong – soldiers, assassins, etc. – and rely on brute strength to mele and/or shoot their way through obstacles. While there are games that do feature women in these positions – Halo Reach, Gears of War 3 – for the most part, these are roles filled in “real life” by men. Biologically speaking, men are physically stronger than women for the most part. Women can be and are capable and physically strong, and since games are fantasies anyway, there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be included in these positions.

However, I think that the anti-Sarkeesianites are missing (possibly deliberately) the point that videogame protagonists don’t have to be realistically physically strong. Especially if they’re in a puzzle-solving context, have a gun, wield magic, or… well… exist in a fictional world where they can do whatever they want. But, as the Digital Changeling suggests, strength isn’t the point. Women in real life may be at a physiological disadvantage in terms of brute strength (in extreme contexts… most women are indeed strong enough for daily activities), but that doesn’t make them any less capable or resilient, or intelligent. Female characters don’t have to be hulking brutes like Marcus Fenix or Master Chief.

In fact, males don’t either, so I’m not really sure what the point of saying that women aren’t “strong” has to do with being a protagonist. Mario and Luigi are not “strong,” although I’d bet anything Samus Aran is. Alan Wake doesn’t appear to be a physically superior specimen, and I’d put my money on Lara Croft being able to take him out in the combat department. But there’s no need for female characters to be any more or less strong than most of the male characters we see – and no reason they can’t be.

But really, what we (as feminists and gamers) are asking for isn’t women who defy the laws of biology and physics (although their breasts often do both). What we’re asking for is that protagonists who are complex, interesting, and capable sometimes be female. We’re asking that the industry not auto-default to male protagonists just because “that’s how it’s always been” with the lame excuse that “women won’t sell,” because both Tomb Raider and Metroid say otherwise, as does the popularity of the femShep option in Mass Effect. We’re asking that the women in games be just as complex as the men – not that they receive special privilege, but that they simply be treated as humans, just like the men.

I do think that this is inevitable, that as more and more women enter the industry as gamers, as professionals, as critics and journalists, that we will see more female protagonists, better female NPCs, and more complex narratives that don’t revolve around (almost exclusively) female victims. But I also think that it will cease to be inevitable if we don’t keep pushing, even though we’re tired of hearing about it, even though I’m sure Sarkeesian is getting as tired of saying it as I am (and she says it a lot more often), and even though it feels like a dead horse that we’re still beating.

The point is that E3 shows us that the battle isn’t over, that we’re still fighting not for supremacy, but for basic equality… and, really, not just for women. For gamers of color, for transpersons, for all marginalized populations. So what we want to see, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, is for you to look at the world around you and replicate it in your games. Include women with brains. Include all cultures and races and sexual orientations and people with disabilities. Make games more real by making them reflect reality.

Your Complaint Has Been Heard

So recently Microsoft announced that XBL complaints about behavior – specifically, bullying, bigotry, excessive cursing, and other unsports-person-like conduct – will be addressed, and that reporters will be notified when their complaints have been dealt with. I imagine it will go something like this: “Dear X, We at Microsoft care about your online community play experience. Thank you for reporting INCIDENT. We are currently investigating the source of the problem. Thank you for playing on XBox Live!”

And then radio silence.

I expect that is how this will work not because I disbelieve that there are people at Microsoft who believe in the importance of a safe and tolerant online community. I’m sure there are many. I expect that there will simply be too many complaints, and that many of them will be “retributive” – you beat me, so I’m going to report you. I think that the team that does start working on these issues is going to burn out very quickly. I think they will be horrified by some of the things that get reported, and frustrated at the banality of other things. I think that what we’re more likely to see is people reporting the really bad and the really stupid – the things that someone takes offense at because they are themselves intolerant (someone who doesn’t want to play with a kid, a girl, or an African American; someone who doesn’t want to see an atheist gamertag, or a religious gamertag; someone who doesn’t want to play with someone who speaks a different language than they do…).

This was one of the topics that came up in conjunction with the harassment aimed at Anita Sarkeesian for her Kickstarter (and continues to be aimed at her every time she turns around). And you can bet that if someone on XBL finds out her gamertag, they’ll report her for breathing, too. And that’s where I’m dubious about the good intentions here. A reporting system offers just as many opportunities for abuse as a lack of a reporting system.

But if we get right down to it, there’s also the question of draconian policing that makes me nervous, as well. While I agree that people should be able to feel safe in their gaming community, I also think that some people are overly sensitive about what that means. While I’m sure many of them may be justified in feeling the way they do, there comes a point where their feelings inhibit what most of the community feels is reasonable behavior. (And I’m aware that a community in general can be bigoted, racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., and that doesn’t justify authorizing such behavior. However, there are cases in which a genuine and respectful discussion of a topic that is sensitive for one member could cause that person upset… and without condemning them for it, it would not be fair to curtail a reasonable discussion based on their feelings. I also think that most people recognize such situations and behave appropriately, but the cases that become public are those in which people aren’t behaving rationally.)

Basically, I’m almost more concerned about the abuse of such a system than I am pleased that Microsoft has decided to implement the system. After all, Sarkeesian’s last video was flagged as inappropriate and pulled down off YouTube (and then quickly restored) precisely because of such a system. And I can also imagine a case in which parents who allow their 9-year-old to play Call of Duty then feel as though they have the right to demand that other players not use profanity because of their child – even though the game is rated Mature (17+).

Perhaps Microsoft will be able to implement a more nuanced system than I’m giving them credit for, but what I really want to see is self-polilcing. I want to see more instances in which one player says to another “Cut it out,” and that’s what happens. I want to see more instances in which no one feels like they have to or should say anything because the community has made the decision to act like reasonable people. Call me jaded, but I’m not holding my breath about those, either.