“Characters who look cool…”

So today Gamers Against Bigotry posted on their Facebook page about an interview on Rock, Paper, Shotgun with Blizzard developer Dustin Browder about the new Heroes of the Storm. Much of the interview is pretty straightforward, until Nathan Grayson (of RPS) asks the following question:

RPS: You have some interesting alternate outfits for heroes. Roller Derby Nova, especially, caught my eye. On its own, that’s totally fine – just a silly, goofy thing. A one-off. But it got me thinking about how often MOBAs tend to hyper-sexualize female characters to a generally preposterous degree – that is to say, make it the norm, not a one-off at all – and StarCraft’s own, um, interesting focus choices as of late. How are you planning to approach all of that in Heroes? 

The question is fairly clear – how are you, as a developer, going to respond to the current demands of some of your target demographic to less hyper-sexualized female models? In essence, the question is, “are you going to continue doing what you’ve done, or are you going to accept that feminism has a point?” The answer is not terribly heartening:

Browder: Well, I mean, some of these characters, I would argue, are already hyper-sexualized in a sense. I mean, Kerrigan is wearing heels, right? We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool. Our sensibilities are more comic book than anything else. That’s sort of where we’re at. But I’ll take the feedback. I think it’s very fair feedback.

Yes, Kerrigan (Starcraft) wearing heels is definitely the problem here. Because hyper-sexualization is putting women in silly shoes. I’m not a fan of silly shoes, either, but this woman is not being hyper-sexualized by heels.

Now at least she’s… sort of wearing something covering most of her body. Okay, so it appears to be an exoskeleton that isn’t exactly detachable from her body, but she’s not the scantily clad Dark Elf from Warcraft, either. These images, Browder says, aren’t “sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool.”

Browder may not realize that his team is “sending a message,” but when images like this become normalized – whether in gaming or, as he suggests, in comics – they in fact do send a very clear message, one that has been picked up on by gamers, non-gamers, and developers around the world (Do I need to reiterate how horrific Warface‘s female soldiers are?). There are plenty of ways to make characters “look cool” without all-but-exposing their breasts and giving them waspish waists that perpetuate an unrealistic image of female beauty.

In his defense, Browder also says that the backlash against such hyper-sexualized characters is “very fair feedback,” but it is said as almost an afterthought to the defensive insistence that the creation of such characters is based on “comic book sensibilities.” While this may be true, it deflects responsibility for a more egalitarian aesthetic on a medium that originated in the 1940s and 1950s (not a time of glowing gender equality) and is itself known for horrifically sexualized portrayals of women (and men, but, as this spoof indicates, to a much lesser degree).

So what do the Heroes of the Storm characters look like? Well, they appear not to have sexualized the Panda.

There are, of course, other heroes – including Kerrigan and Diablo – in the game, some of whom are sexualized (the women) and some of whom are not (the not-women – in which I include pandas, irrespective of gender). And that’s really the issue. Is it okay to have some characters sexualized and some not? Yes, of course. But when all of your sexualized characters are female (and humanoid female, specifically), and all (or almost all) your female characters are hyper-sexualized, that should be an indicator of gender inequity that needs much closer examination.

Will Heroes of the Storm change its models? I really rather doubt it. But I do think that it’s time to stop considering scantily-clad characters the epitome of “cool” in gaming, and to use the same standards of “cool” for both genders – armor, weapons, clothing details, rather than lack of clothing. Because, really, as long as we continue to encourage the hyper-sexualization of women in our media, whether games or tv or movies or music performance, we won’t be able to get away from the attitude that women are sexual objects designed and purposed for male pleasure – in other words, rape culture. So instead of excusing sexist designs as “cool” or a product of our preexisting “sensibilities,” let’s create some new ones.

Gaming Criticism and Ms. Men

Yesterday, Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent video in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series came out on the “Ms. Male Trope.” As is likely predictable by this point, the internet, in all its trollish glory, reacted with its usual backlash, including, but not limited to, death and rape threats, complaints of censorship, and howling about how feminists are going to ruin videogames.

Today, I submitted my reaction to The Learned Fangirl, so I’m not going to rehash it here. Suffice it to say that I think – as I have consistently thought – that there are good things and bad things about the video, but that for the most part, she has a point. I do think that this time she missed the most important part about this trope in an effort to take on BioWare’s Mass Effect series, which may have been a poor choice on her part for a variety of reasons (some of which my post at TLF goes into).

But that’s not actually the point of this post. Yesterday, a petition went up at Care2 concerning Sarkeesian’s series. My initial reaction – as I’m sure anyone familiar with the gaming community could probably guess – was a heavy sigh of “Aren’t we done with this yet?” But the petition isn’t quite what I expected. First of all, it’s articulate, and expresses concerns with the nature of internet debate that I think are eminently valid… even if I remain unconvinced of the overall conspiratorial tenor of this particular petition.

For the record, I do not think that Sarkeesian has “effectively silenced any genuine criticism of her often erroneous and intentionally misleading point of view by portraying all of her critics as a ‘cyber mob’ of misogynist internet harassers,” since 1) I criticize her work every time she puts out a video and have yet to be called either a misogynist or a cyber-harasser, and 2) I know someone who invited her to speak on a campus who had to deal with very real threats of physical harm against her. I think that there is a very vocal contingent of the gaming community who lack a certain level of basic human decency but who also don’t realize that what they say and do online can have very tangible emotional consequences – they believe that their “harassment” is funny and harmless, not that it causes psychological trauma. I don’t believe that most of the people who threaten Sarkeesian will ever do anything to her – but I also believe that their threats are a valid cause of upset for Sarkeesian, who is fully within her rights to protect herself and expose online harassment.

I don’t think that she automatically dismisses “any legitimate criticism of factual inaccuracies in her statements, differences of opinion, or any other disagreeing response as part of a ‘misogynist hate campaign,’” rather, that her dismissal of criticism becomes overwhelmed by the tide of hate-filled misogyny she genuinely receives. Does that mean she doesn’t address all the valid points made about her work? Of course! As a functional internet celebrity, it would not physically be possible for her to do so. Should she attempt to address at least some of the reasonable critiques? It’s her choice whether she does or not, and petitioning her to do so is, quite frankly, childish and silly.

But here’s the one point that I think may actually have some validity: “both gaming and mainstream media outlets have extolled Ms. Sarkeesian’s viewpoint uncritically, we feel that it is time to demand that our voices be heard.” While I myself have been critical of what Sarkeesian has had to say, I am not a major media outlet and people do not flock to my blog (or even to TLF, more’s the pity) to read my opinions on games. I was surprised, however, when Wired featured her because, although she is doing critical work on gaming, she isn’t a part of the industry, either in games journalism, games criticism, or game development. Like the petitioner, I find it a little disturbing if, in fact, Sarkeesian was “likened Anita Sarkeesian to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk” by PBS, because – again – while she is engaging in a much-needed critical discussion, she isn’t facing anything like the level of hatred, bigotry, or violence that was faced by Parks, King, and Milk.

Sarkeesian has become something of a feminist darling (something I’m sure she would hate to read written about her… sorry) because, in part, she is young, female, and fairly attractive. She’s also articulate and knows how to put together a video that is straightforward and clear. What she isn’t is in the industry – yet. Maybe this series will springboard her into a career in games journalism or games criticism (she’s a pop culture critic, which is a lovely thing to be, but is much more general than a games critic because it encompasses tv, books, and movies, too, and typically engages them on a more surface level because it talks about so many things rather than in-depth in one thing).

Now I do have a problem with the impression that has been created around Sarkeesian that she is neigh-on-untouchable because she is standing up against gaming misogyny, either because she has been sanctified by taking on this impossible battle and/or because of the fear that maligning her will place a media outlet or journalist into the undesirable category of “misogynistic troll.”

But this isn’t a problem exclusive to Sarkeesian, nor is it worthy of a petition (although there are a good deal of things unworthy of petitions that end up with online petition sites… I remember a similar impulse among my third and fourth grade classes with notebook paper). In essence, the problem is that journalists, websites, Sarkeesian herself, and people in general have the inability to evaluate anything by degrees: we want things to be either good or bad, and attempt to shove anything into either the square or round hole, whether it is square, round, triangular, or rhomboid.

What we need to do, in games criticism, games journalism, and life in general, is recognize that all things are grey, composed of good and bad elements, and worthy of both praise and criticism (although not dolled out in equal measure). We should be able to criticize Sarkeesian, but we (and she) should also be able to criticize games for whatever we see fit, provided we do so with decorum and reason. And that’s really the problem here. We’ve abandoned logic for emotional impulse, gradation for extremity, and no conversation can be reasonably carried on about anything if every game either feminist or misogynist, every comment an attack or a defense, every participant a princess or a troll.

Leadership in Games, or Why I’m not Insane for Studying This

So today I was pointed in the direction of this article about leadership by Brendan Sinclair at Games Industry International, focused on Dr. Ray Muzyka (one of the co-founders of BioWare, the makers of Mass Effect and Dragon Age). Sinclair’s piece examines Muzyka’s theory of leadership, namely, that “The unfortunate truth is it’s easier to be a half-assed or outright bad leader.”

While I know very little about Muzyka’s style as the leader of BioWare (a position which he has since left), what I do know is that both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series are obsessed with questions of leadership, both good and bad, and work very hard to train their players on making the proverbial tough choices that leaders have to make. One of the best things about both series, in my not-very-humble opinion, is that both games ask their players to become leaders within the virtual gamespaces of the Milky Way galaxy and Thedas (respectively), forcing them to consider issues of ethics, of compromise, of loyalty, and of – to paraphrase one of the characters from Mass Effect – ruthless calculus.

Muzyka suggests that leadership is more important now than it ever has been – which is a phrase that has appeared in the literature (philosophic, fictional, and nonfictional alike) of every culture capable of writing. While I don’t subscribe to the “now more than ever” mentality, I do think that leadership is always important to social, political, and even scientific progress, and that it serves as the core reason for the success or failure of a work of art, an individual, or a civilization.

Muzyka suggests that the primary challenge in the twenty-first century is distraction:

There are a plethora of gadgets that enable people now, but technology can be overwhelming, and even paralyzing. It doesn’t replace good leadership or focus, Muzyka said. Good leaders need to cut through the noise and provide a clear path forward for their team. That starts by providing clear and consistent core values. It’s not just about what you consider important; it’s about what you don’t consider important.

Although Muzyka focuses more on the leadership capabilities of an industry developer than he does on the overwhelming presence of leadership in the company’s games, it’s clear that the development team as a whole has a good idea of what leadership is and what it should be, given their depiction of it through both narrative and mechanics in their games.

What’s a Gamer, Anyway?

If you follow me in the Twitterverse, you’ve probably already gleaned the purpose of this post. If not, I’ll recap for you:

81% of people are gamers, 48% of whom are women, according to Playspan #GDCNext

— Zoyə Street (@rupazero) November 5, 2013

 

Half of men are console gamers, half of women play games on smartphone. #gdcnext

— Zoyə Street (@rupazero) November 5, 2013

A “gamer,” Zoya also says, “plays games of any kind,” including cell phone, Wii, indie, and AAA games, at least according to GDCNext. Which raises a couple of red flags for me. On the one hand, I’m not trying to “dismiss” the value of cell phone or Wii games – the “casual” market – in favor of some sort of AAA-games-related elitism, or, perhaps worse, the “hipster-academic” indie-sanctity. On the other, I’m not sure the term “gamer” applies to my Wii-playing grandma, or my Angry Birds-playing mother-in-law in the same way that it does to me.

This is a question my students attempted to address back in September when they learned that 46% (now 48%) of gamers are women. They were flabbergasted. And then they wanted to know what, exactly, I meant by “gamer.” Unlike in Zoya’s tweet, most places don’t give us a definition of a “gamer.” They don’t specify electronic versus tabletop, casual versus “hardcore,” console versus PC versus iPhone.

But in the industry, I see terms thrown around for which I’d like to see more concrete definitions. There are “causal gamers,” “hardcore gamers,” “mainstream gamers,” and “indie gamers.” The first appear to be players of cell-phone and Wii/Kinect games, physical games like Wii Fit or Just Dance or Lips. Mainstream gamers play AAA titles – GTAV and Call of Duty – while indie gamers play primarily indie titles purchased on Steam or XBox Marketplace. “Hardcore” gamers, however, seem to be the breed we really mean when we say “gamer.”

“Hardcore” gamers play AAA titles, indie titles, and often also cell phone/tablet games. They play on more than one platform (XBox, PS3, Wii, PC) and often own peripherals that are exclusive to or primarily used for gaming (not just the WiiFit platform or Rockband set, but a gaming mouse or gaming PC). “Hardcore” gamers go to gaming cons, like PAX or GenCon, and will stand in line at midnight for releases of their favorite titles. “Hardcore” gamers own collectable editions of games as well as “action figurines” and other gamer gear (tshirts, posters, etc.).

These are the gamers people call to mind when someone says “gamer.” These are the “fans,” the primary LEGOs in the framework of gamer culture. The loudest voices of support or derision for new games and for games criticism.

So who are they?

I don’t know if we have a real answer backed up by solid facts. The demographics we use now to talk about gamers are inclusive, and I think that, ultimately, that’s a good thing, but it’s important that we not forget that at the core of the gaming community is a different demographic from the one that we see represented in our statistics.

I do know that within the development side of the industry, the vast majority is white and male (more than 85% in both categories, according to a study done in 2005, and although those numbers may have shifted, they’re still biased in that direction). My extrapolation is that hardcore gamers, while likely more diverse than the developer pool, are probably more similar to it than they are to the current “gamer statistics.” (After all, most developers are probably drawn from that “hardcore” fan base – you have to really love gaming to become a game developer.)

So what is the value of this information? Put simply, there is a disparity between the current push toward inclusivity and diversity within the industry based on the statistics from the general “gamer” category and the population producing the games and generating the loudest feedback response. The stereotype of the “gamer” continues to be perpetuated and reinforced from within the gaming community because that stereotype makes up the largest portion – I would think – of “hardcore” gamers, the people who go to cons and post on forums. While moms and grandmas play games, they aren’t a part of the outspoken gamer culture that has been recently pushing to “save” games from feminist corruption – that culture is still predominantly white, predominantly male, and predominantly straight.

And it will likely continue to be, at least for a while, simply because that kind of aggressive demographic (which is likely not inherently coupled with its straight-white-male-ness, but is instead correlated with it for a variety of reasons) creates a cycle of self-perpetuity. It alienates those who are Other to its experience (which includes, for what it’s worth, many other straight white men known colloquially as “bros”), thus reinforcing its insularity and perpetuating the trend of territorial behavior. It also leads to industry claims that the “fans” won’t buy games with female protagonists or realistic clothing (apparently, if Warface is any indication).

The solution, it seems to me, is to keep pushing the proverbial envelope, whether “we” who wish to change the industry are developers, fans, or critics. And for that reason, although recent statistics on “gamers” are somewhat misleading in the sense that they do include my grandma, they are also invaluable to the process of industry transformation, because if publishers have to account for my grandma’s tastes, they’re less likely to create a homogenous slate of scantily-clad snipers swooning over an equally-unrealistic hunk of military man-flesh. They’re more likely to make games like Plants vs. Zombies, or Words with Friends, but they’re also more likely to count on players like me, who play casual games and AAA games and indie titles – that rare species of “hardcore” gamer over the age of 30 with two X chromosomes, a gaming PC, an XBox, and maybe even a couple action figures.