I was pointed to this post on tumblr recently and asked if I’d throw in my 2.346 cents (Canadian). The entire thing, both parties, touch on exactly the sort of problems with having this type discussion about representation. Both are using emotional responses to support their argument, and both are using analogies that are flat out wrong. Let me preface the rest of this article by saying that I think it’s great when developers want to add more characters, male, female, trans, gay, straight, black, white, asian or anything in between. I also support devs that don’t; that want to keep their period-accurate middle Europe game true to the time it’s set in, and I do not condone people who pressure developers and artists to change just to fit some notion of morally acceptable art. That’s really the bottom line here, games are art, and artists do try to balance what the market needs and wants with their creative vision. I don’t think there’s some nefarious plot to keep women out of video games, or make games just for guys. I don’t think there are meetings where developers discuss how best to make sure an entire demographic is offended, but I do think meetings happen where a list of ‘requirements’ are looked over and boxes are checked just to fill some quota in hopes that they can avoid the drama that could make or break a game. That, to me, is the worst way to go about any creative process. But, back to the example above.
I’m an old gamer, compared to many who might be reading this. I started on an Atari 5200 and I remember when the biggest games at the arcade were Tron and Galaga. I was getting started as a gamer when computers weren’t even in homes yet for the most part, so when I see examples like the one above, both of them, it makes me tear my hair out. No, video games are not like a department store that only has men’s clothing, and is suddenly being asked to make women’s clothing, and no, it’s not like a department store that only has lingerie and bikinis in the women’s section. Gaming used to be quite genderless, and commercials featured whole families, mom, dad, brother and sister sitting around to play Defender, or Pong. Arcade ads featured young men and women both enjoying Pac-Man or Space Invaders. Back then the popular games were not male or female oriented, my mom loved Centipede, and my favorite game on the Atari was Super Breakout. Gaming is like a department store that started out making very generic clothing that anyone could wear, and putting out commercials that tried to get everyone in the door.
So what happened? Back then young girls didn’t generally have an interest in gaming, and it wasn’t because of lack of representation. Games were fairly genderless back then, remember. When I was growing up I didn’t know a single girl (other than my mom) that played video games until I got into junior high, and even then it was one girl that most would refer to as a tomboy. So that department store realized that they were advertising to a very large market that just wasn’t buying the product. What would you do if you were that business owner? Keep spending money with no return? Of course not, that’s a foolish way to do business. So eventually they started making men’s clothing, not because they hate women, or don’t want women around, but because women aren’t shopping there. Does anyone really think that Mattel is going to take their Barbie line and split it 50/50 because a few boys play with them? What if a movement of men started today and demanded such a change? Sure, Mattel might start working more male oriented toys into the line, but would it happen over night? No, how could they, decades of marketing and research have gone into making the most money from this line and change like that couldn’t possibly happen that fast.
Anyway, as the years went on, more young women and girls became interested in gaming, for a multitude of reasons, and game companies have taken notice. Maybe not as fast as some people would like but it’s impossible to deny there are more options for women who want to play female characters, games that aren’t all action oriented or violent, more puzzle games, more simulators, and the list goes on. The popular number now is 48%, 48% of women play games. That number is great, but it’s also misleading. The number of women who play games on PC or consoles is far lower, less than 20% if memory serves, so the rest are playing mobile games, and what games dominate the mobile market? Bejeweled, Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and Farmville to name a few. All games that are relatively genderless, appeal to everyone, have no violence, and no scantily clad women. The market has changed, and developers are taking note. The larger market is following, and will continue to do so.
The real issue in my mind is how people deal with this. Of course there’s nothing wrong with asking a developer to include more character options for women or minorities. When it crosses the line to me is when that request becomes a demand followed up with a threat, or accusations of misogyny or sexism. No one wants to be accused of sexism, so the easiest thing to do is just check that box. No one wants to be accused of racism, so there’s another check. LGBTQ representation, another box, and so on. Before you know it you have a game full of hollow characters with no real impact on anything because the creators were more worried about making everyone happy than actually making a game. The use of fear, ideological pressure, and pressure from agenda-driven press does nothing to actually create the kind of atmosphere that people want or an atmosphere for creative production of art.
Another thing that people forget is this debate is not a black and white issue. I know plenty of women who game and love the ‘boy’s games’. They get right into FPS games, tearing it up, shit-talking, and throwing down with the guys, and that’s the games they love. The only change they may want is to have a female soldier to pick from, and sometimes not even that. I also know plenty of women who like to play the sexy female characters like Bayonetta, for a myriad of reasons ranging from simply liking to look at attractive women, to it being a ‘power fantasy’ for them to be someone they’re not for a little while. Taking those things away or changing them is not always the answer. We all like different things, and those likes are not always based on gender, but often the people who say gender doesn’t matter are making everything in gaming about just that. The answer is not more of one thing and less of another, it’s always more of everything and let people choose what they want.
As I said above, change never happens fast, especially with people and even moreso with business when that change requires faith that there will be a return. When one looks at the current market, the small percentage of gamers that are women, we assume that more women want to play games but don’t because of one factor or another. I want everyone who wants to play games to be able to play them. I want every artist who wants to make a game to be able to make one. What’s hard to show is exactly how many people that is. How do you convince a business to change their model based on a speculative number that may or may not return their investment? Basically through time, and it’s working.
The final point here is one type of game, and gamer, can exist with all others. Too often this conversation turns to what needs to be removed from gaming in order to make it more inclusive. Yah, I’ll give you a minute to roll that around in your brain. Remove something, to be inclusive… Wanting more games that some women might enjoy doesn’t mean you have to remove other game styles, just make more games. Of course some gamers are scared of this, it’s happening all the time in one form or another, from games being imported with ‘localization’ changes and games not being imported at all to avoid western criticism, to games being removed completely from store shelves and entire markets. Ironically enough, it’s not just the guys that are upset with a lot of these puritanical moves in games either. My Twitter feed is full of women who are just as pissed off when their favorite Japanese game is censored for our overly-sensitive western eyes, or when GTA V gets shit on for being too offensive (it’s a game about doing whatever you want, only YOU can make it offensive!). When someone loudly proclaims that something in a game is bad and has to be removed it absolutely makes gamers angry. Why should that person be able to determine what gets to be in a game? So the debate isn’t helped at all when people try to push out one style, tone down imagery, or eliminate ‘problematic’ material. The best response to something you don’t like is more of the things you do, not less of the other. If your idea is better, it will drown out the other, and if not, then we’ll all just have more options to choose from.
So, let’s have that debate, but let’s lose the emotion. Let’s stop accusing each other of awful deeds and intent, and let’s stop labeling everyone with words ending in ism or ist. Let’s talk about it like rational adults, and at least accept that we all want the same thing. More fun games, more gamers to play them with, and more options for everyone.