Binders and Gills and Inches, Oh MY!

(Note: Please read the last two words of the title as though you are George Takei, if only for your own personal amusement.)

In what seems to be a followup to yesterday’s post about gender-customization and Ubisoft, today I get to talk about Ubisoft’s extremely questionable decision to announce that Far Cry 4 (which has already taken some heat for the blatant racism on its cover art) is, and I quote, “packed to the gills with women.” “Packed to the gills.”

First of all, I’m not terribly sure what that even means, except to correlate it with the equally bizarre and ambiguous Romney “Binders full of women” debacle from the 2012 election campaign. Really, “binders” presumably can hold more than “gills,” unless we’re talking about something like a whale shark, I suppose, which must have really large gills. (I’m not the only one making this connection, either.)

For once, the above forum thread is full of more mockery for Ubisoft than it is derision for those who find Ubisoft’s statement questionable, although I suspect largely for the ludicrous nature of the statement rather than the implied content. Continuing, “Hutchinson says the developer ‘tried very hard to make sure of the four main antagonists, half of them are women, which is cool. On your side, one of the main leaders of the rebel faction is a woman, half the rebels that fight with you are women. It’s packed to the gills with women. They’re everywhere, just like life.’”

The follow-up that this is “just like life” is almost face-smackingly stupid, given that feminist gamers have been asking for years for the demographics of games to emulate “life,” the fact that Ubisoft has actually listened for once does not merit giving them a virtual cookie, especially because in spite of the claim that Far Cry 4 is “teeming with women,” that it is “just like life,” they aren’t going to create any female protagonists. Because women can be antagonists, but not, apparently, protagonists, because that’s too much work. Also, I guess, not “just like life.” Because women aren’t heroes. (They’re not even people on the same level as corporations – but that’s another debate I’m not having here.)

But here’s the best part. As Polygon notes, “Far Cary 4 devs were ‘inches away’ from women as playable characters.” Inches. (5-8 inches, might we say?) So now we’re supposed to give Ubisoft some credit because it almost did what we wanted it to do? They almost had gender-customization for their protagonist? And the reason they didn’t?

Well, per yesterday’s post, it wasn’t because having a female protagonist would in some way derail the story. Nope. Because “When asked if he thought a woman protagonist would work in Ubisoft’s brazen and oftentimes violent open-world shooter series, Hutchinson said that yes, it could work – and it should already be working.” What happened, then?

They didn’t have a “female reading for the character.” That’s right, they just didn’t hire a female voice actor. Sure, that’s time and expense, but really? Even that soon (the article is from June 11) after what happened with the Unity announcement at E3, Ubisoft still decided to play the “animating women is hard and we’d need a female voice actor” card? (Yup, they did.)

So here’s what I don’t get. If you see how upset a significant portion of the fanbase gets when you don’t offer gender-customization for Unity and you were originally intending to provide it as an option inFar Cry 4, why on earth would you not delay release long enough to put it back in? This is not a case of “the story needs the protagonist to be a man,” as the developer states explicitly that the story not only can but should support gender-customization, but a case of corporate cost-cutting at the expense of inclusivity and creativity. This is a case where Ubisoft should look at the developer and say, “The fans want it, you want it, let’s make it happen” instead of forcing the developer to regurgitate a tired, weak, and half-assed argument that it’s “too hard” to include what he wanted to include from the beginning.

We’ve been calling for more diversity in games for a few years now – and now we’re seeing developers (yes, even white male developers) try to do it, so let’s get the publishers on board with the fact that games not only can but sometimes should include that diversity, even at a modest financial cost.

Stay Out of My Plot!

A piece today at Polygon, entitled “What if ‘he’ and ‘she’ were interchangeable in a game’s story?” seems on the surface to be asking a legitimate question about the role of gender in videogaming. However, given the piece’s brevity and failure to understand the argument with which it opens, it ends up serving more as an open door for the kind of trollish commentary that we’ve all come to expect from any attempt to rationally discuss gender in gaming.

It opens with a reference to the recent kerfluffle about Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity‘s lack of female assassins in the cooperative portion of the game. It concludes by suggesting that providing a gender-neutral option functionally deflates the game’s narrative, since “an interactive story has to be written with unique relationships between characters of various genders,” at least according to Sande Chen.

The comment section – read at your own peril – is a morass of people putting forth BioWare games as examples where this gender-neutrality works effectively, people howling about how “Tomb Raider wouldn’t work if it had a man!,” angry debates between people who believe that men and women are inherently biologically disposed to certain behaviors and those who believe biology is indeterminate, and people desperately attempting to suggest a middle ground in which we ought to just make games more diverse only to be yelled at by people crying out for “pirate diversity.” (I’m not going to address the “biological differences” bullshit in this post.)

First of all, to suggest that the problem Ubisoft brought to light is that “feminists” want all protagonist characters to be gender-neutral is silly. No one ever said that. The problem with Unity is that in a multiplayer cooperative situation gender was not one of the customizable options, when the developer went on proudly about how the character could be customized in just about any way and is shown in a whole variety of outfits. No one said that the central protagonist in a single-player narrative had to be gender-customizable.

Similarly, when people complained about GTAV, the complaint was not that all three playable protagonists were not customizable – it was that all three of them were male and that women were otherwise horribly represented in the game and the series as a whole.

Put plainly, the outcry is not that every protagonist should be gender-customizable. The outcry is that when plot and narrative do not matter and a character is otherwise completely customizable, gender should be included on that list. Even Call of Duty allows players to choose gender (as of Ghosts). Other games that do this in multiplayer: Gears of War, Mass Effect 3, Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, Dead Island, Monaco. Many of these have blank slate characters. Others have given characters personalities and traits. All of them have a choice in gender for multiplayer.

Yes, there are games that do have a gender-neutral protagonist – Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fable, Skyrim – and most of them do it well, or at least well enough. But there are also games where the identity of the protagonist in terms of race and gender are important – Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed (all the single-player campaigns), Red Dead Redemption. There are others where gender and race seem less relevant, but still have a set player-character, like Dishonored orDead Space, who does default to white male-ness, and I can see an argument being made that the “default” could be mixed up in these cases, but really I don’t care that Corvo and Isaac happen to be white men. It would be nice to have some variety, but I’m not offended by their existence.

I am offended when a new game comes out in 2014 that offers a customizable multiplayer experience in which character identity is irrelevant (because otherwise they wouldn’t all be the exact same thing, either) and gender and race are eliminated from the slate of choices. Because that’s just a sign of laziness and lack of consideration, a statement that women and racial minorities aren’t important enough to make it worth their time and effort. Sure, Ubisoft and the Assassin’s Creed series has a great track record, but that makes it more disappointing, not less.

So, Polygon, if you’re going to represent an argument for greater diversity and gender equality, at least do us the dignity of getting that argument straight. We’re not asking for all the things to be gender-customizable. We aren’t trying to “change” stories or bleed the significance from game narratives to make room for a “shell” of a player-character. We are asking that when a game is about multiplayer and customization, that the game actually be customizable, both in terms of the color of the character’s pants and what happens to be underneath them.

The New Frontier

In preparation for a co-authored piece on Tomb Raider and Red Dead Redemption, I’ve been doing some reading about frontier space and American masculinity, and something I read yesterday in Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America struck me as particularly pertinent to a lot of the sexism-related issues we’ve been seeing recently online.

Kimmel’s discussion of the West and the Western genre of novels (and films) suggests that part of the allure of the West is that it offers an escape from the drudgery of everyday life that is seen as feminized and emasculating. He writes,

As a genre the western represented the apotheosis of masculinist fantasy, a revolt not against women but against feminization. The vast prairie is the domain of male liberation from workplace humiliation, cultural feminization, and domestic emasculation. The saloon replaces the church, the campfire replaces the Victorian parlor, the range replaces the factory floor. The western is a purified, pristine male domain. (150)

In addition, Kimmel suggests that any new space was first and foremost considered masculine space, or at least space in which to prove one’s masculinity: “Finally, other men sought to revive manhood in the real jungle. If the frontier was closed, some reasoned, why not extend its boundaries beyond the borders of the continental United States and create new frontiers where men could test and prove their manhood?” (111).

In our increasingly globalized – and therefore shrinking – world, there are no new frontiers for us to explore (we haven’t yet gained the capacity to go into space, “the final frontier,” although I will bet anything that we’ll see a revisitation of the masculine frontiersman in the “space cowboy” when we do). This means that the only space left for us to treat as a frontier is digital space – the frontier of the internet and of digital gaming.

For a variety of reasons, the tech industry has become increasingly a male domain (there are a lot of books that deal with why this may have happened, even though the first programmers were actually women), which has marked digital space as masculine space in our social consciousness. As such, games, which occupy digital space, have also become marked as masculine space.

It becomes an issue when men – no, not all men – become defensive about digital space as their sole purview and domain. This is a long-standing pattern that appears to be symptomatic of Western civilization; men become highly defensive of space when they believe it is about to become “sissified” (to use Kimmel’s term) and attack those they perceive as encroaching on that space.

The inherent problem seems to come back to this idea that there must be a distinction between men and women beyond basic biology. Kimmel’s book lists a historic trajectory of trends that includes things like the fact that originally pink was a masculine color and blue was feminine, high heels were for men, and other examples of cultural gendered tropes that have been inverted over time. Given this, it becomes nearly impossible to say that “boys just like X,” or “girls don’t like Y”; the masculinization of digital space is as socially constructed as pink or blue. The whole idea of having “male” or “female” space is silly, and our social pressure for men and women to embody certain traits is equally detrimental to both.

TLF: Digital Decorating: Women as Background Decoration (TvWVG)

My response to the latest Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video – “Women as Background Decoration, Part 1″ – is up on TLF.

The short version is that I think Sarkeesian is getting better – or at least more comprehensive and thoughtful – with her series as it continues. While it still has some issues – which I address – the later videos have become more engaged and less angry lists of “bad things,” which I applaud. There’s still some points she makes with which I take issue, but overall I think she’s learning from the process and becoming a better critic for it.

PA Grrlz

One of the big kerfluffles at E3 2014 came with the announcement of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity game. The Assassin’s Creed series has thus far come in a variety of packages (all of which feature the same basic core concept of weird soul-based-time-travel) and time periods, including the Crusades, Revolutionary War Colonial America, the Antebellum American South, and Pirates. Technically, the protagonist (the time-traveler in a hoodie) has been the same, although the player generally spends most of the time playing as a different historical personage. These people have been Arabic, European, Native American, and African American (and female!).

So when Ubisoft comes out with Unity, which features four-player multiplayer and “character customization,” this news seems exciting. The game has a tradition of diversity in its main characters, and offers new perspectives on traditional stories.

Unfortunately, it never occurred to the developers (or maybe it did, and the suggestion was shot down) that in a game with four-player coop, the players might want to play as more than the same white guy… Sure, he can wear different pants, but it still the same guy.

At any rate, at an E3 that was dominated by games featuring straight white males (with a few very noteworthy exceptions, including Rise of the Tomb Raider and Dragon Age: Inquisition from the major houses), this was an enormous disappointment to fans and critics who have spent the better part of the last two years vocally campaigning for greater diversity (gender, ethnic, and sexual) in games.

When confronted about this seeming oversight, creative director Alex Amancio told Polygon that he “ran into ‘the reality of production’”:

“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” Amancio said. “Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.”

The reaction to the idea that it’s simply “too hard” to include female characters has been met with widespread scorn, both by critics and other members of the industry. While it is, yes, more work to include a female character option, the excuse that something is “hard” or “more work” is not an adequate reason, at least not anymore. (Kotaku’s follow-up with an official statement from Ubisoft.)

In short, feelings have been hurt, many people offended, and Ubisoft is scrambling to cover its previously-PC butt. And the misogyny trolls have come clambering in masses out of the proverbial woodwork.

So when Penny Arcade (of dickwolves infamy) decided to respond, I’m sure many feminists are understandably uncertain of what tenor that response is meant to take.

Here, Gabe and Tycho have – for the unfamiliar – been transformed from their usual white-male-nerd selves into white-women-nerds (I’m not negatively commenting on the lack of ethnic transformation, just being specific). In the strip, they discuss the weird and largely irrelevant obsession that many presenters at E3 seemed to have with Ps – screen resolution and framerate, neither of which are at all relevant to most aspects of gameplay.

The strip says absolutely nothing about the gender swap. It just does it. And then the strip after just goes back to the usual male versions with no further comment.

Here’s what I hope it means. I hope it means that they’re commenting on Amancio’s remark that it’s “too hard” to make women (and yes, I’m fully aware that drawing a character as female is a completely different ballpark and even sport than a full game reanimation and voiceover). I hope it’s a reflection on the ridiculousness of the claim that players don’t want the option of gender when many major titles now do this automatically, at least for multiplayer modes, if not for both multiplayer and campaign (Call of Duty, Saint’s Row, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Fable, Gears of War, Skyrim, Diablo, any MMORPG in existence…). Certainly, there are games who choose a specific protagonist and predetermine that character’s gender (Tomb Raider, Metal Gear, GTA, and the campaigns for CoD and Gears, among many others). I’m not taking issue with those games – only with those who advertise customization and then complain when players want to customize gender.

I hope it means that PA’s creators, who don’t have the most sterling reputation when it comes to gender equality and tolerance, have learned from their encounter with the dickwolves and that they’re trying to undo some of the damage they’ve done by saying, “Yes, we agree that it shouldn’t change the purpose or major content of a game to allow for the option of swapping gender.”

I’m not saying that reanimating and recording an entire game to allow for both genders of protagonist (or any other difference in body type) isn’t work. It is work. The point is that it’s work that is important to do and is worth the time and effort that it takes. It’s important that people understand that it’s worth doing, not simply to appease the political radicals (i.e. feminists), but because it makes the game more mature, culturally speaking, when the game makes a point of including customization as a part of its mechanics.

But it is also important for there to be more games that feature women and minorities (or have them as options) simply because the world is not comprised of 95% straight white men. That isn’t to say that there aren’t valid arguments for having a straight white male protagonist, but that argument shouldn’t be “because it’s the default.” It should be with a purpose. Gabe and Tycho in PA are white men because their creators and alter-egos are white men – and that’s okay. But it would also be okay if they were women, and I hope that’s the point PA is trying to make.

We’ve entered an age in videogaming when there should no longer be an assumed default to straight white male-dom. We should now be in a place where gender, race, and sexuality are choices, and political ones, and that while any choice is OKAY TO MAKE, that choice – even to make a protagonist a straight white male – needs to be a deliberate one, made for social, cultural, and political reasons.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Follow-Up

In the last twenty-four hours or so (less, really), there have been a lot of interesting responses to Crystal Dynamics’ trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider, some positive, some negative, some confused. Here’s something of a recap.

IGN‘s “live” response, which was mostly positive, focuses on the idea that yes, Lara is human and that it’s a good thing that we’re acknowledging that what happened to her in Tomb Raider is not normal. Ashelia’s reaction at HellMode is similar, suggesting that a quasi-realistic picture of PTSD makes Lara “video games’ first dynamic and realistic heroine” who actually feels emotions (although I would like to note that Lara has already felt emotions in Tomb Raider, so they aren’t “new” to Rise). One DeviantART fan is also excited, looking forward to what happens, as “SOON AS THE BLUE HOOD DROPPED MESS GETTIN REAL SON!!!!!” Whatever that means, although I think I can sympathize (maybe?).

I’m not completely sure what to make of the tone in the Destructoid recap of the trailer, which is very short and possibly snarky, but also possibly just a factual recount made by an overworked journalist:

Lara Croft had a rough time on her last archaeological expedition. It’s no wonder that she would suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or experience some other negative psychological effects. During Microsoft’s E3 press conference this morning, we see her in a session with a therapist who is working to help her through the tough time.

 I read some snark there, but that might be me being jaded, and is unintended by the writer, who also remarks that “old habits die hard, so she will still be performing death-defying jumps over enormous chasms soon enough.”

I am even less sure what the escapist‘s reaction is supposed to mean. Here it is in its entirety: “Rise of the Tomb Raider trailer shows that Lara has a new hobby after the last game.” Can one really consider therapy a “hobby”?

Patricia Hernandez’s response at Kotaku is similarly brief but less bizarre, and withholds taking a side in the “Rise of the Tomb Raider Trailer Debate,” simply remarking that the choice to show Lara in therapy is “Interesting!” I have the feeling that Hernandez is going to wait and see what happens with the game, which, really, is probably the best policy all around.

But there are also those of us who are skeptical. Ishaan at Siliconera says that Lara “looks rather disturbed,” and Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Adam Smith suggests that the whole thing is ill-conceived, from title to trailer:

The title really is Rise Of The Tomb Raider, which I suppose is better than Raid Of The Tomb Riser, or High Rise Raider, in which Croft and some other posh sorts wage violent class warfare in a south London estate. In the actual sequel, Lara has been left so emotionally damaged by her experiences on the gusty island of the first game that she has to wear a hoodie. And see a therapist who reminds me of a non-specific Fox News anchor.

 That doesn’t strike me as a positive response, although Smith does say that he enjoyed the most recent game and will likely enjoy this one, as he expects that “this probably isn’t a point and click adventure about rebuilding Lara’s shattered mind. She’s going to jog around exotic locations shooting arrows into peoples’ brainstems.”

Ultimately, although yesterday’s post did come across as a bit negative, I’m more in line, I think, with Hernandez than any of these other responses in that I’m waiting to see where Rise of the Tomb Raider ends up taking this therapy thread. I’d like to see something along the lines of what Ashelia suggests, a game that doesn’t dismiss the impact of PTSD while also enabling Lara to be an active agent in her own recovery. But… I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical that the therapist isn’t going to end up being a villain or a dithering idiot, which doesn’t do much for the idea that Lara is actually seeing a legitimate therapist and acknowledging that PDST is not something that makes a person weak. I’m also skeptical that the emphasis on feelings and emotions isn’t going to become about the fact that Lara is female. As @applecidermage tweets,


If this were to be Master Chief – or Shepard, or Marcus Fenix, or some other manly man – I’d have a lot more hope that the therapy angle was not going to be coded female. However, I’m afraid that the image is going to perpetuate the idea that women need therapy because they’re hysterical instead of showing therapy as a potentially valuable treatment, and it’s going to diminish Lara’s strength of character and reemphasize that therapy is not a “manly” thing to do. Which would be terrible.

Edit: TLF Crosspost 2

Rise of the Tomb Raider… I hope.

Following today’s announcement of the development of Rise of the Tomb Raider – the sequel to Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider (2013) reboot – I am… hopeful but skeptical. While I loved Tomb Raider for a wide variety of reasons, the whole premise of today’s E3 trailer (released by Microsoft, which suggests an Xbox One release, although it was not specified as such) seems to retract a lot of what I actually liked about the new Lara Croft.

First of all, the trailer is structured as a visit payed by Lara to an older, white male psychologist, whose patronizing dismissal of Lara’s experiences (contained in flashbacks to running, shooting, falling, and running from a large bear) as generalized “trauma” is disturbingly paternalistic, both in the “you poor girl, daddy will protect you” sense and the “trauma is something we can fix” senses, neither of which bodes well for the new game’s ability to continue some of the more feminist “I may be terrified and female, but I can still kick your ass and outthink you at the same time” attitude that Lara had in the 2013 reboot.

The Lara – under a hood and ostensibly unidentifiable to the viewer just yet, grows increasingly agitated by the psychologist (as do I) as the trailer progresses, cracking her scraped knuckles and tapping an iconically booted foot. The psychologist discusses how it would be good for her to go outside, to “take walks,” etc. He says that many people lock themselves up as a result of trauma, but that there is “another type of person.”

“Do you know what happens to them, Ms. Croft?”

“They become who they were meant to be,” her voice answers, in a flashback, rather than in the office, and the trailer ends with Lara holding a torch in the midst of a vast cavern.

Okay, so she’s certainly claiming agency at the end in asserting her identity as “who [she was] meant to be” rather than as a passive victim afraid to leave the house, but the fact remains that she’s still seeing a psychologist about the experience of trauma – which runs almost completely counter to the image of Lara cultivated both in the original series and in the reboot. Although real people certainly often need professional help with their lives, Lara Croft is not a real people, and the placement of the trailer in a psychologist’s office increases the air of victimization (which is so often read as weakness) surrounding her.

Perhaps this was meant as a way to make her more real, more (as my students would say) “relatable” to the real people who play the game. I hope so. But I’m afraid that it in fact augurs a new vision of Lara in which her strength is stripped down (much like Metroid: The Other M did to Samus Aran) or even stripped away in order to present her as a damsel in need of assistance, rather than a woman who staunchly refuses to be damselled no matter what happens to her.

That’s certainly what Polygon seems to think, given the following tweet:

As much as I hope they’re right, I’m skeptical. After all, in far too many circles, making a female protagonist “hurting” and “human” mean making her into a victim with little-to-no agency, a weepy puddle of “female feelings,” because everyone knows that “real” women are fragile, emotionally delicate flowers. I can only imagine what Pratchett’s Lara would do if someone called her a “delicate flower.” I hope this one is the same.

I really hope that my trepidation regarding Rise of the Tomb Raider (to be released late 2015) is unfounded and that perhaps they’ve even brought writer Rhiannon Pratchett back to continue crafting the Lara she started. I hope that this is more of what I loved about Tomb Raider (2013), and not a shift back to the staid misogyny of older games in which women can’t kick ass, take names, and talk intellectual circles around their opponents and companions. I hope it does more of what it promised in 2013, rather than less. I’m willing to hope, I’m just not going to hold my breath.

Oh, and one more thing. He calls her “Ms. Croft.” She’s an archaeologist. She has a goddamn Ph.D. and found the historical remains of a city that most people didn’t believe existed (Yamatai). She deserves the “doctor” that goes with her name. Use it.

Edit: TLF Crosspost

Pink and Purple Unicorns

Several recent things have come together to spur this post, including the always-unfortunate reading of internet comments, my Twitter feed, and my academic research. First, I’ve recently read From Barbie to Mortal Combat, published in 1998, and have started working my way through Beyond Barbie and Mortal Combat, published in 2008. Second, I recently read a news story about how women are no longer to be permitted to teach Bible classes at some Christian colleges. Third, the following tweet:

What they all have in common is the assumption – or, in Todd’s case, challenging the assumption – that women must somehow want something inherently different than men, or, as the next sequence of tweets suggests, that women are somehow biologically deficient when compared to men:

Maddy’s tweets (and I did skip several intervening ones that illustrate rather colorfully just how angry this concept makes her) show another fundamental problem facing not only women, but all minorities in most situations (not just gaming). It’s the kind of warped Darwinian logic that was used in prior centuries to explain why people from Africa were intellectually inferior to people from Europe – and, like that argument, the claim that women have poor reflexes is the consequence not of genetics, but socialization.

Men have better game-playing reflexes in general because more men than women play games from an earlier age. More boys are expected to play videogames than women. More boys are taught to play sports. All of which hone coordination and reflexes. Mythbusters recently did an experiment about the myth of “throwing like a girl” in which they learned that men and women throw exactly the same with their off hand – meaning that men’s supposed natural ability is conditioned by their expectations, both taught (in playing) and observed (watching men play professional baseball, for instance).

That aside, the notion – which seemed to be accepted without much problematization in From Barbie to Mortal Combat – that women must necessarily want something different than men (physical abilities aside) is equally ludicrous. While it is true that women are socialized to like pink sparkly things, unicorns, and rainbows, women and girls are not genetically programmed to like them. In fact, a few centuries ago, blue was considered feminine (one of the reasons the British Army wore red).

Women and girls are no more genetically predisposed to like Barbie Fashion Designer than they are anything else; their supposed preferences are entirely socialized. Socialization doesn’t make those desires any less real, of course, or any less valid, but the point I’m making here is that there is no intrinsically “feminine” way that games must be in order to attract female players.

The answer to Todd’s question above shouldn’t be “What can games do to be more attractive to women?” but “How can games be less hostile to women?” Really, that’s the point where we (still) are in games; games objectify women, they victimize women, they place women in positions of little to no agency or control. And the gaming community is no better – perhaps even worse.

If you are a developer who wants more female gamers, then make your community and your game inclusive of women, rather than exclusively for women. Men and women don’t have to be dichotomized, and in fact shouldn’t be. Instead, games – any component of a modern and egalitarian society – should include everyone, catering not to a generic player (who is by default white, male, and straight), but to all players.