To Fix or Not To Fix

This week, Gamespot ran a piece on how Dontnod, the developer who made Remember Me and is currently working on Life is Strange, isn’t “trying to fix the industry” by featuring female leads. This struck me as odd on a couple of levels.

First, Dontnod is “trying to fix the industry” by having female leads, but not in a pushy kind of way, which is probably why they said what they did:

“That’s not us trying to be different for the sake of being different,” creative director Jean-Maxime Moris told Joystiq at Gamescom. “It’s not as if we’re trying to ‘fix the industry.’”

What this says to me is that Dontnod is trying to make games that are good, games that are unique or “fresh” (to use one of the buzzwords), games that aren’t the same cookie-cutter white-male-shooter games that everyone else seems to think is required for success. What that means, really, is that they are trying to be different, but not “for the sake of being different” – the idea is to make an original game because that’s a good thing, not just to shock people or stick out like a sore thumb.

I find it a little odd that people disparage the idea of being different “for the sake of being different” – that somehow wanting to make something original is not a legitimate goal in and of itself. But that is as it is. Certainly, if a company wants to be successful, they need to make a game that is fun, a game that is popular, but I’m not sure why Moris went out of his way to assure players that “being different” isn’t one of the goals.

Second, art director Michel Koch explains the presence of female leads by saying that

“We have women in the dev team–not that many because it’s still the video game industry and there are not that many women–but we have women working on the game,” Koch said. “And our writer, which is an American writer we’ve worked with before, he’s consulting with his nieces. He’s showing scripts to them, to read it and see if it feels genuine and fresh.”

There are women on the team. (Admittedly, having women on a development team is a thing that is sadly rare, but here seems more like an apology than a reasonable statement – but that could be the way it’s framed and not what Koch intended at all.) Women are a part of the development process, and the game has female leads. Sadly, this is as unusual and innovative as the article frames it – but it shouldn’t be.

But that aside, the headline – like the quote – also makes some basic assumptions about videogames and gamers that is still bothersome. It has become headline-worthy point when a developer makes not one, but two games in a row that feature female leads (that aren’t a series, like Tomb Raider). My god. I applaud Dontnod for doing it, mind you, but I’d rather see the headline be about the game instead of about a developer defending the choice to make two games in a row featuring female leads.

Calling Out (Non-Gaming)

To be perfectly clear, this is not a post about games or gaming or the gaming community, although it is something that happens in the gaming community and could therefore be applicable. Mostly, it’s about something that happens when I go to the grocery store, and when women in general walk down the street, go shopping, or pretty much do anything: catcalling.

Catcalling can be insulting, raunchy, or phrased in the words of compliment. But it isn’t. Claire Zulkey tries to explain this in “A Conversation About Friendly Catcalling With My Husband,” posted on Jezebel. Her main point in the piece is that being catcalled – even, as in the case she describes, with a compliment – is disconcerting and disruptive. She also points out that there’s a difference between commenting on someone’s person and commenting on their clothes – a point that I think she’s right about.

She says that women generally comment on one another’s clothing choices or style – and I’ve noticed that when strangers (male or female) comment on my clothes I’m always significantly less creeped out than when they comment on my body, body parts, or general attractiveness. If someone passing me on a hiking trail says they like my Aperture Science shirt, I know they’re a geek and they get the joke. If someone likes my crazy striped tights, I know they have a sense of whimsy. Those things aren’t creepy.

When someone calls out “Hey baby” or “Hey beautiful!” or “Work it baby!” (all things that have been yelled at me while walking to and from the grocery store, although the oddest may be “I like your truck – wanna go for a ride in it?” in the grocery store parking lot). And these comments apply whether the catcall is positive or negative – calling out something about a person’s weight or poor fashion sense or hair or body odor or presumed sexuality is equally unacceptable.

To me, it isn’t just that catcalling is disconcerting (although it is). It’s that it assumes that I personally care what you, a random stranger, think about my body. (What you think about my clothes is only slightly more relevant, as I dress deliberately, but still not really, and I’d prefer that people I don’t know keep their opinions about both to themselves.)

Catcalling, most of the time, is aimed at women and perpetrated by men (although not always), and therefore presumes a certain level of domination and ownership. People who catcall – usually men – assume that their opinion about someone else’s appearance or self-presentation is more valid than that person’s own.

Worse, commenting on my physicality presumes not only that I care what you think about my body, but that you have a right to judge my body. You don’t. The only people allowed to judge my body are me, my spouse, and my medical professionals (although they hold questionable status so long as they rely on BMI instead of fitness as a measure – long story).

If you’re ever in a position where you have the urge to say something to someone, try this staple: “Hi.” Or “Good morning/afternoon/evening.” Or “How’s it going?” (which in many parts of the country does not actually require an answer in the conventional sense, but a “How’re you?” in response). If the person you address smiles and replies, then you’ve maybe made their day brighter. If they introduce themselves or begin a conversation, maybe you’ll make a friend. If they look startled, they have the default “Hello” or “Fine, and you?” response to make back, but do not pursue the conversation. They aren’t interested – but at least you haven’t made them feel horribly self-conscious or objectified in the process.

Girl Gamer Identity

Earlier this week I talked to Elizabeth Ballou of Bustle about sexism in gaming (and found a fellow BioWare fangirl – always great). The resulting article, which discusses gender representation in games and talks to several other gamers, both male and female, made me think about what it means for women to identify as gamers.

One of the gamers Ballou interviewed presents a sad-but-true perspective that echoes the problem of the “fake geek girl”: “’I know I’m afraid to call myself a gamer,’ said my friend Mackenzie. ‘The moment I do will inevitably result in a guy or two calling me out, scoffing at my puny list of favorite games or lack of shooters among them. I’ve had someone say I play video games to get attention from boys. I’ve had someone say that I’m a fake. Honestly, I just love playing games.’”

The “fake gamer girl” is a subset of the “fake geek girl,” that mysterious female who appears at cons or game nights and who is automatically accused of using games or cosplay or a geek tshirt as a way to gain male attention. Nevermind that the kind of attention female gamers often garner is crude, abusive, sexist, dismissive, and demeaning. Nevermind that women might actually attend such events because they like gaming or comics or anime.

Last fall, I spoke to a class of seniors in the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at UR about gaming and gender, and about fandom and gender in the gaming community. They were appalled at the kinds of treatment women received as gamers, but they weren’t really all that surprised. What surprised me was that at the start of the conversation, they all said they weren’t gamers. By the end of it, two of them admitted that they probably actually were gamers, they just didn’t want to identify as gamers because of what that meant – both within and without the gaming community.

There is still a perception outside of gaming that it’s a waste of time – and that it’s primarily done by teenage and college-age males. Within gaming, I think the community is aware of the age spread (from very young to the very old, with an average age in the late 30s), but I think there is still a misperception that “gaming” is still predominantly male. The male gamers asked about it often admit that women play games, but they play Angry Birds or Flappy Bird or Candy Crush or Wii Fit – that they’re casual gamers rather than “real” or hardcore gamers.

When I was talking with Ballou, she identified as a “casual gamer.” And then we proceeded to spend a lot of time talking about Mass Effect and Dragon Age, about Jennifer Hale’s amazing voice acting, and about whether we’d played through as both manShep and femShep (I have, she couldn’t make herself do it). We talked about the weakness of level design in Dragon Age II (seriously, all the caves are exactly the same), and she talked about how much better the narrative complexity was in Dragon Age: Origins.

This is not a conversation one has with a “casual gamer.” “Casual gamers” don’t know the names of the voice actors, they don’t talk level design, and they can’t pick apart the narrative versus gameplay nuance of an RPG series that takes 40+ hours to play. And yet women are far more likely than men to identify themselves as “casual” players as a kind of defense mechanism – particularly if they don’t play FPSs.

It’s safer to say “I’m a casual gamer” to avoid the kind of harassment or disdain that is so often targeted at gamers, particularly female gamers, so that it becomes something we often say without even thinking about it. We think about what kind of person is usually labeled as “hardcore” and we say “No, that’s not me,” and default to “casual.” But there’s so much in the middle – and so many genres of games. I’m an RPG gamer, but I also enjoy shooters and casual games (like Angry Birds or Peggle). I’ve played RTSs (Starcraft II, Age of Mythology) and tower defense and puzzle games. I’m not a stereotypical “hardcore” player – I don’t devote endless hours to Call of Duty (at least not anymore), and I’d rather play single-player than multiplayer almost any day.

I’d encourage more women to start identifying as gamers – and not as “casual” gamers, unless that’s what they really are – in large part because the more we embrace that identity, the more others will recognize it as legitimate.

Tired

So over the past week or so I’ve graduated to a new level of reaction to the rampant sexism that surrounds women in media and, especially, gaming. It’s getting to the point now where I’ve become exhausted just looking at the tweets, posts, articles, and videos. I’m tired of it being a topic of conversation, not because I think it isn’t worth remarking upon, but because I’m just tired of it being a problem.

And this worries me. It worries me because in the last month or so I’ve seen women driven out of the industry by harassment (Samantha Allen, in particular, who explains that “For Women on the Internet, It Doesn’t Get Better“), I’ve seen other women and gay men on the verge of giving up their passions and careers in games criticism and journalism, and yet the comments sections of articles just don’t stop.

Keeping up with the stories and tweets about sexism and harassment in games takes up at least three hours of my day – three hours that I could be spending working, but (because I write on gender and games) which I instead spend “keeping up with the conversation,” if a conversation it can be called. Three hours which leave me tired and depressed and wishing that either the world were a better place or I’d been instead interested in makeup and fashion or born a straight white male. (No, not really either of those last two things, but you get the idea.)

And I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer harassment beyond the occasional “You’re dumb and you don’t know what you’re talking about because you’re a woman.”

I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to write for The Learned Fangirl, where the writers are an amazing supportive group of women (and the occasional dude) of many walks and creeds and colors. Where most of the comments are civil, and even those that cross the line don’t leap across it wearing rocket boosters.

But something has been happening recently, in life and online, that strikes me as a little disturbing. I get comments that say things like “You aren’t like other women,” or “You’re not one of those feminists,” and I’ve been told that I “don’t count as a woman.” Apparently I possess the bizarre ability to “pass” as male without trying… and I’m not discussing transgender. I’m pretty much cisfemale with no effort put in (little/no makeup, jeans, tshirts), so there isn’t any confusion about my gender identity, either in person or online, where my name makes my gender pretty apparent.

And yet I “don’t count” as female. Whether this is because I don’t coo over pink things or because I don’t immediately begin to scream about the objectification of women in every game I play, I’m not sure, but it’s starting to bother me quite a bit. As much as I’m in favor of gender neutrality in terms of our valuation of skills, being told that I “don’t count as a woman” isn’t actually gender neutrality.

I’m being exempted from the gender paradigm – it still exists outside me, somehow, and is still problematic in that other women – people who “count” as women – are still being excluded or marginalized where I’m not. (I don’t WANT to be marginalized, mind you, I’m just pointing out that my exclusionary status is an indicator that sexism is very much alive and well for all I wish it weren’t.) And it’s an odd place to be. It’s odd to watch sexism and harassment from the outside, to have mansplainers talk to me as though I understand their perspective because I’m not “that kind” of woman or because I “don’t count” as the female enemy.

I wonder why I’m excluded even as I’m thankful not to be the target of threats and verbal assault, why my voice is somehow more palatable to those who would see women relegated to kitchens and bedrooms and stripclubs – and I wonder if that’s a problem. I don’t see the world as a dichotomy of “us” (women) versus “them” (men), nor do I see games as either “evil” (sexist) or “good” (feminist). I see them as products of our culture, which is deeply flawed and patriarchal, and I see some games doing good in the world, some for gender egalitarianism and acceptance, some protesting violence, some protesting racism or religious exclusion, and some not really contributing anything of quality to the cultural milieu.

But what does it mean that voices that struggle to be rational and reasonable, to acknowledge both the positives and negatives in the fight against the -isms (sexism, in my case), become co-opted by the dominant and oppressive paradigms? I don’t want to be irrational in my responses to games, but neither do I want to be aligned with misogyny simply because I won’t lambast games for their use of a damsel in distress…

And all of it makes me tired.

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