Just Another World-Class Gamer

So I want to give a shout-out to professional Starcraft, both players and media coverage, today because of the way they handled this: a female gamer (handle: Scarlett, name: Sasha Hostyn) in the World Championship Series who almost won season 2.

Why do I think they did such a good job? Because the Penny Arcade report above and the live commentators (video links in the article) didn’t say a single word about her gender aside from using the female pronoun when referring to her. In fact, the lead story is that she’s Canadian (not South Korean).

We often spend a ton of time talking about how women in games need to be more visible and more vocal, so why am I so happy that when a woman wins second place in the Starcraft WCS, nobody says anything? Simple. Because they didn’t have to draw attention to the fact that she’s female. They just accepted it and treated her exactly the same as every other player in the tournament… aside from commenting that she’s Canadian. (In some ways, focusing on another difference does draw attention to her gender by virtue of it being the proverbial elephant in the room, but I still think silence was the best possible option here.) It’s a positive because they didn’t feel the need to praise her skill because she’s a girl, as though being female is a natural videogaming disadvantage. Positive, too, because there were no disparaging comments about her gender, either. No suggestions of kitchens or domestic activities or attractiveness.

Scarlett’s just another gamer, and a damn good one. And it’s about time that the gender of a gamer becomes irrelevant to their abilities and the way they’re treated from the other side of the console (or computer), so props to PA and to the WCS for allowing her to be a gender-neutral gamer instead of a “girl gamer.” Now let’s see more of that in games, in the gaming community, and in games journalism, where gender determines pronouns but not much else in terms of treatment, privilege, or assumptions of skill or even taste.

I hope this is the beginning of the end of sexism in gaming (community, development, journalism), but I know we still have a lot of work to do across the board. Nevertheless, this story is a beacon which I can come back to when I get depressed by the rest of it all, to remind myself that we are moving forward, even if slowly, and if we (as gamers who happen not to be straight white men) just keep going, just keep doing what we do, whether that’s designing, blogging, publishing, or just playing, the industry will respond and we will be able to stop hiding behind avatars and handles… if we want to.

Unbreaking Reality

Fair warning, regular readers, that this blog is about to become inundated with class things. The reason for this is that this semester (and next) I’m teaching a course called Games, Game Theory, and Leadership Studies, and that means that pretty much everything my students and I do in class is going to be relevant and fair game.

That said, as part of course prep I’m rereading Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken and thinking back on yesterday’s first class. McGonigal not only suggests that “Reality is broken,” but that we have the capacity to use games to fix it. I think she’s right, and I’m going to use my lovely students to guinea-pig that theory, since it’s very rapidly becoming their reality that needs the most fixing.

Today I read a post by Ernest Adams that talks about how gaming demographics are changing, becoming older, more female, more minority. How the industry needs to accommodate the fact that many of their gamers aren’t young, straight, white men. And – more importantly – how the young, straight, white men need to stop screaming about how their games are going to be RUINED by the infiltration of female gamers, gamers of color, and gay gamers. How that screaming demographic is actually the demographic we should be ignoring, not catering to. My class gives me hope that such a future will come to pass.

My class is, I have to admit, more than 50% male. They are all freshmen. But I do have a strong contingent of women who jumped right in and got going yesterday without even the slightest hesitation, unconcerned and unintimidated by their male peers. And I have a good percentage of my male students who are not white. (I have not asked them their sexual preferences because that information is irrelevant to me as their professor, although it might be interesting from a sociological perspective, and I’m not going to.)

By their very nature, they are all probably gamers of one sort or another. Maybe mobile gamers, maybe casual gamers, some videogamers, possibly some board or D&D gamers, but you don’t sign up for a games course if you aren’t at least a little bit of a gamer. I was, however, surprised that when I poured a pile of dice in front of them, they didn’t even blink before they started talking about possible win conditions, ways to add different mechanics (guessing, math skills, rolling, matching colors or types of dice, etc.) and what their game’s goal was going to be: one group even created a game designed to teach algebra.

They did this for 30 minutes. In 30 minutes a room full of freshmen who didn’t know me or each other before they walked in and sat down collaborated with one another to make games. And that’s why I have hope that McGonigal is right that games can bring us together and Adams is right that the trolls in the wings are shifting ever more to the margins. That we can become a gaming society in the same way that our parents were a television society. And that a gaming society can come together as a community rather than rip itself apart with hatred, bigotry, and verbal assault. We have a long way to go, but it seems to me that the next generation of gamers is already trying to unbreak reality.

Now with Improved Fem-Tech!

So one of the more recent pieces of news on the gaming front is that the upcoming Call of Duty Ghosts is going to have female characters in multiplayer.

My first thought: Good! It’s about damn time. After all, lots of games have had female characters in multiplayer mode for a long time (including Halo and Gears of War), sometimes even in the single-player campaign (Halo Reach, Mass Effect, Gears of War 3, Fable, Dragon Age, and others). Now perhaps it’s too bad that it was more important to them to announce new-and-improved realistic dogs at E3 than it was for them to announce the introduction of playable female soldiers (yup, the furry, tattooed German Shepard rated higher than women), but at least they are including women, right?

Right. Mostly.

And what inspired this inclusion? Well, I’d assumed – probably like many other gamers – that Activision or the development team had finally realized that women were not only people, but people capable of combat, even in a virtual, pixelated environment. (Yes, I know the snark is coming on strong today, but it’s August and I’m an academic, so just bear with me for a bit.) As Stephen Totillo notes in an article today, apparently not.

The reason (if you don’t want to click the link)? Technology. We now apparently have the technology to include women. Because clearly creating a single female model for a soldier is far too complicated for game consoles to handle… except that they’ve been doing it for years. Yes, I do understand that the actual point being made is about complex character customization – while it’s possible in Mass Effect or Skyrim to fully customize the appearance, color scheme, and other elements of the player-character, in a game like COD the memory required to display fully customized avatars for ALL the players in a game is significantly higher than what is needed for the player-character in a single-player campaign. I get that.

But here’s the thing. You don’t need full customization in order to have female characters. You can have three models of characters that aren’t at all customizable and one of them can be female. It’s pretty easy. Halo did it. Gears did it. Unreal Tournament did it (and that one was in the 1990s). But let’s say you only have one model in your game. Defaulting to male for COD is probably the better choice for a variety of reasons, including the fact that most soldiers are male and most COD players are male. Okay. I’m fine with that.

But what I’m not fine with is the deliberate effacing of the sociopolitical issue behind the decision to include women. It’s like Activision doesn’t want to admit that they were at one point excluding women, so they blame the absence of women on technology. They couldn’t admit that the culture fostered by COD was misogynist or at least sexist, so they said “Oh, we just didn’t have the capability,” instead of saying, “Hey, we think it’s time that we include women in COD and since we’re planning to include custom characters, we’re doing it now!”

I’m one of the first people on the bandwagon to defend COD against detractors who say it makes players violent or aggressive, but I’m also one of the first to say that the COD player community is about as far from welcoming as it gets (except maybe League of Legends). Don’t believe me? See these tweets in response to the alteration of a couple of guns. So when I see women being added to the roster of CODG, I’m pleased. But when Activision doesn’t have the courage to admit that part of why they’re including women is to be inclusive, I get annoyed. Because to have a major industry leader saying “Hey, guys, it’s time to include women in our games because that’s the right thing to do” would set an example. Saying “Oh, we’re doing it because now we can” dismisses the importance of including women and also sets an example, and not the good kind.

TLF: Still Distressed

Today my review of the final installment of Tropes vs. Women in Videogames (Damsel in Distress, part three) went up on TLF. I’ve talked about Sarkeesian’s series before, both here and on TLF, and while I think the TvW series is improving, it still leaves me wanting more.

I do like that Sarkeesian recognizes the cross-over between media in this piece – that she sees the echoes in the games that feature female heroes from television series and movies that are doing the same thing (Buffy, Charmed, Sabrina, etc.). I kinda wish she’d been more conscious of that in the other two sections – to note how the games are the same, better, or worse than their surrounding media. Because that’s something that’s worth thinking about.

I have been thinking about that, actually, a lot lately. About how even in movies and tv shows I’m seeing the same tired tropes that pepper videogames. Recently, the husband and I went to see The Heat with another couple. The husband had some really interesting things to say about it – namely that it felt like an alien universe. Which I thought was actually really weird. It felt, to me, like a typical buddy-cop movie, except with women instead of men. But not to him (and not to my friend’s husband, either, apparently). He pointed out how Mullins was always emasculating the men in the film by commenting on the size of their testicles. How both women dressed “masculine.” How there wasn’t any real romance in it, at all.

How Bullock’s earlier film Miss Congeniality, which has a lot of similar themes about empowerment, made more sense to him. Why? Because ultimately in that film, women were being objectified. Sure, a lot of it was satirical, but because the girls got prettied up, it made sense. Because there was a male love-interest, it made sense. Because she had to act like a girl to win, it made sense. In The Heat, they don’t. The “makeover” scene is one in which they take out a lot of guns and end up in black cargo pants, tank tops, and flak jackets, carrying ammo and grenades. Bullock isn’t the “hot chick” of the duo who always gets attention – far from it. And they have to act like men in a man’s world in order to make progress, and they know it. It was very “true,” and apparently made the men in the audience really aware of their privilege. I want to play a game that does that.

I also just want to briefly mention something in light of one of Sarkeesian’s recent tweets about the series.

My Damsel in Distress miniseries doesn’t feature more heroic female characters in games as examples because they are not Damsels in Distress

— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) August 13, 2013

While on the one hand, I totally see her point (which follows an earlier tweet in which she points out that just because the damsel-in-distress trope is prevalent in videogames does not mean that ALL female characters are damsels), I also think she’s missing the motivation behind the complaint that she isn’t addressing female heroes. First of all – and I do mention this in my review – there are lots of female characters who begin as or feature temporarily in games as damsels who un-damsel themselves, and I think those characters are very much worth mentioning. To quote myself (which is a little weird, I know):

But the only example Sarkeesian can give us of a game in which the female rescues herself is… made up? What about the most recent Tomb Raider, in which we are repeatedly (and I’m not that far yet) placed in a victimized position and then Lara gets herself out? What about Metroid? What about any number of instances in the Dragon Age series in which the Warden and Hawke (if female) fight their way out of trouble that they have landed themselves squarely in the middle of? What about No One Lives Forever? Or Remember Me? Or the female characters in Left 4 Dead and Gears of War III? Or Sheva Alomar in Resident Evil 5? Or perhaps the example I like the most, Alice, from American McGee’s Alice, who is so utterly objectified by both medicine and society that she goes insane and has to fight her way out of her own self-objectification? (Alice is an amazing game on so, so many fronts.)

My list is not simply a list of female heroes, but a list of female heroes who specifically and deliberately un-damsel themselves. They are damsels at first (or at some point in the game) and subvert the trope by redefining their damsel status from victim to hero. I think those kinds of female heroes are worth mentioning. I think others can be mentioned as alternatives (and Sarkeesian does some of this, very quickly) – answering the “What do we do if we don’t create damsels-in-distress?” question. Or the question of “How can we have a character in need of rescue that isn’t a negative damsel?” (since rescuing another person is one of our fundamental social power fantasies). These are legitimate questions that Sarkeesian doesn’t address.

But I do want to come back to the idea that although I am criticizing her work, I do applaud what she’s doing (just as she’s criticizing games that she might enjoy…). I don’t think she should stop. I do think that I want to see more than what she’s accomplished, however, and from other perspectives (feminist and otherwise) that do more work with the “gaps” in the TvW series. Because it does have gaps. Glaring ones that need to be talked about and filled.

But Anita Sarkeesian is only one woman who needs to sleep and eat like the rest of us, and her work – at the forefront of its genre – is going to have gaps. And that’s really fine. I’m not saying she should be able to do ALL THE THINGS. I am saying that there are gaps, that those gaps need to be addressed, and that someone – be it Sarkeesian herself or others, maybe even myself to a very small degree – needs to be working on that.