Addendum to Tropes vs Women: some games not mentioned

I note in passing that two series of games specifically were not mentioned in the Tropes vs Women video I discussed yesterday.

– Call of Duty

– FIFA (also Madden, et al)

While she wasn’t aiming for an exhaustive summary I think it’s worth noting that the two most popular, best selling franchises of recent times don’t actually ping the anti woman radar. I’m sure they are also aimed at the same audience and tend not to attract female players (although sports games might surprise us if we had the actual figures, I was always a sucker for Football Manager frex), but they’re not seen as problematic in the same way.

This isn’t to say that all is fine and well in the world of gaming, but it simply isn’t true that games need to include semi naked chicks or horrible things happening to female love interests to sell well.

Feminism, tropes vs women, and what we learn from the trolls

"Women, listening to anti-suffrage speeches, for the first time knew what many men really thought of them."
— Rebecca West

Check out the second video in Anita Sarkeesian’s series on Tropes vs Women in Video Games, it’s really very good.

She shows multiple examples of the tropes she discusses to hammer home how common they really are. There is no doubt that there is a pattern here. There’s also much food for thought, particularly around how common the plot twist is where a male protagonist has to use violence against a woman in order to save them. And yes, she does note that you can find a rationale for any example in isolation but when you look at them all together, there is a larger context.

Doone notes that these tropes are harmful to men also, and I agree. Also, why shouldn’t the death of a man provoke as much emotion as the death of a woman in games?

It will surprise no one to learn that the Youtube page was targeted by attacks (it got flagged up so much they took the video down and she had to appeal). That the Kotaku comments went about as well as you could expect. I find that my reaction to the vile torrents of abuse that feminist writers attract is pretty close to West’s observation from the quote at the top of the page – I never knew so many men hated us so much. Or so passionately.  That’s why it is so important to keep talking about these things.

Speaking of suffragettes, ironically next week is the 100th anniversary of the day Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself under the King’s horse at Epsom, a martyr for the suffragette cause. The Guardian has a really strong piece discussing what activists today can learn from the suffragette movement (and damn those women were hardcore.)

We need those who refuse to see any conceivable option but victory. Women like the one who wrote to the Daily Telegraph in 1913. "Sir, Everyone seems to agree upon the necessity of putting a stop to Suffragist outrages; but no one seems certain how to do so. There are two, and only two, ways in which this can be done. Both will be effectual. 1. Kill every woman in the United Kingdom. 2. Give women the vote. Yours truly, Bertha Brewster."

Don’t play on hard mode, girlfriend

Just for a moment, try to imagine what it’s like (if you don’t know from personal experience) to go into a computer shop or a gaming shop with a male friend and have the shop assistant ignore everything you say and do because they just want to speak to your companion. Like, even when you are asking sensible techy questions, they’ll give the answers to the man you are with. It won’t take long before you feel the urge to throttle them and yell “I made Elite on Elite before you were even born!! I collected all 151 pokemons in Pokemon Yellow! I built my own PC!  I am a gamer too, dammit!” (Incidentally, no one should really need to justify why they are in a gaming shop looking at games.)

And maybe you’ll see why female gamers in particular get wound up when the gaming industry often seems to do the exact same thing. I’m sure other people find it annoying too that so many devs are only interested in ‘engaging’ with straight male gamers between 18-35. Certainly it feels sometimes that they are the target audience and everyone else is chopped liver. More than that, it often feels that devs would prefer you just don’t play their games so that they can keep that exclusive brofest atmosphere.

Does anyone really doubt that it would be better to find ways to engage your core audience which don’t automatically push away anyone else?

The saga of ‘girlfriend mode’ and Borderlands 2

I’ve seen a lot of reaction this week in blogs and the gaming media to a comment that one of the Borderlands 2 designers made about a new DLC character class. It takes the shape of a cute steampunk chick and has talent trees based around being a support class with easy mode targeting – ie. it’s designed for inexperienced FPS players who have someone else to play with. They called the support talent tree BFF (Best Friends Forever) – a phrase that in my mind is inevitably linked with Paris Hilton – and the dev comment was that he described this as ‘girlfriend mode’. So basically they have identified part of their core playerbase that is made up of guys who want to play the game with their less skilled female partners and so on and so forth.

If you are either one of those male players or one of those female partners, you will probably think “Fair enough” or “Hey, that guy read my mind and made EXACTLY what me and my partner want.” I am quite sure that Borderlands 2 will not suffer at all financially from the press coverage – in fact chances are that more people will hear about their ‘girlfriend mode’ comment and be more likely to buy the game rather than less. Sure, maybe they pick up a reputation for casual sexism but that’s probably a bonus to their target audience anyway. “Yay free casual sexism included! Bros welcome!”

So why did the ‘girlfriend mode’ comment get people wound up? Much of it is because female gamers are tired of being treated as though they don’t exist unless as a sidekick to a gaming boyfriend, and that in the latter case, they probably suck. It’s the continual stereotyping that wears people down. Also, sexism in gaming is an increasingly hot topic.

Brandon Sheffield at Gamasutra pretty much sums up my thoughts. He also discusses why the backlash against casual sexism (and this honestly is pretty minor in the general scale of things) is getting louder.

I do believe that the mode is a good idea, and I also believe that Hemingway didn’t mean any offense to women. Still, simply saying something is not sexist doesn’t make it not sexist.

I’ve addressed this problem before, but the issue I find worrisome is that “girlfriend mode” made it into Hemingway’s lexicon at all. It’s not an official mode name, but it rolled off the tongue so easily. Developers don’t head into press meetups completely unprepared – he must have thought of this term before. It was said without malice, but also without really thinking about what it might mean to some people. It was unconscious.

Now, in my field of work, being rude, derogatory, or sexist/racist about clients in the office would very likely lead to disciplinary proceedings. It’s unprofessional, disrespectful, and more importantly if you are getting into that mindset in private, it WILL be expressed in how you behave towards clients in public. So good management come down on that sort of thing.

There are also plenty of games which manage to include easy modes without labelling them as girly, and hence avoid this minefield completely. I’ve played a bit of MW3 with friends and whilst I am terrible at shooters, I could at least run around, shoot stuff, and find it vaguely fun on the easiest mode. I felt that if I was motivated, I could spend more time with the game and get better at it, and meanwhile it would still be fun.

Gunthera1 writes in Borderhouse about why variable difficulty modes are great, but using gendered terms for them is not.

But instead of using a term that doesn’t alienate women and paint them as the lesser players, some gamers and the industry itself continue to use “Girlfriend Mode”. Every time it is used we are putting out a sign on the clubhouse door that says “No Girls Allowed”. It is one of many subtle indicators that video games are made ONLY FOR men. If women play games they are viewed as interlopers. They are the girlfriends dragged to the media by their partners. They are not there because of their own desires and interests. They are deemed Girlfriends, not Gamers.

That this story made The Guardian is a pretty good sign that sexism in gaming is becoming a topic of more general interest. Mary Hamilton comments (in The Guardian) that Borderlands has a good history of strong female characters and feels the Eurogamer reporter should have asked for more clarification during the interview:

Eurogamer compounded the issue by using a partial quote in their headline and failing to ask or report a follow-up question. Hemingway’s words change depending on their context: whether this is a widely used internal nickname or his own word; whether he was speaking generally, about all girlfriends, or specifically about his own. It would have been ideal to see that clarified at the time, not dissected afterwards, especially in the light of the franchise’s interesting female characters and approach to bad-ass women in their games.

But none of this would warrant much reaction if game culture wasn’t currently primed to go off like a field of fireworks at the merest hint of sexism.

My other thought is that it’s pretty disrespectful to men who are inexperienced with shooters to provide an easy mode but make it obvious that it’s only targeted at ‘girlfriends’.

Easy modes in MMOs

In these days of ‘bring the player, not the character’ it is easy to forget that MMOs have also toyed with having some classes being easier to play than others, with the aim of making it easier for groups of mixed skill to  play together.

The Theurgist in DaoC was a great example of this, because it had incredibly powerful passive buffs. To the extent that if you were grinding xp with a group and had to leave, the group would ask you to leave your character logged in. So it was a great class for people who had hardcore friends or partners and wanted to group with them without it being frustrating for anyone, anyone who liked ultra laid back play styles, or for anyone who liked to chat or watch TV while gaming.

In WoW, paladins were originally designed to be the ‘easy to play’ class. (It’s hard for me to find the actual dev quotes from Vanilla era WoW but I am pretty sure they actually said this at one point.) They have changed a lot since, but that was one of the original design goals.

Another MMO cliche is the male player who gets his female partner to play as a healer. Imagine for a moment if we called healing “girlfriend mode.”

Is it possible to change ‘gaming culture’?

Another week, another slew of stories about sexism in gaming.

E3 has come and gone, with the attendant outrage about booth babes. (That is, skinny white female models paid to sit on a booth in skimpy clothing and get leered at all day by attendees and journos.) In case anyone hasn’t seen enough pictures of scantily clad models online, CVG posted  a series of 63 photos of booth babes from E3, so it’s a fair bet that this isn’t just one or two companies.

Why is this necessary? Who knows, anymore. The argument that it gets more attention is a pretty self serving one, especially when you can’t actually identify the games they are supposedly flogging from the booth babe pictures anyway. I actually assume it’s mostly that PR managers feel its good for their egos to employ models on their booths. Because if you just wanted women in skimpy gear, you could probably get some cosplayers in to do it for the price of a few freebies, and then everyone would just say “yay community involvement.”

I’ve been to conventions where the model tanks got more attention than the booth babes (which is fair, I think, you can see pretty girls anyway after all), and I’ve been to conventions which used male as well as female models and didn’t particularly notice their booths being less busy. Mostly because gamers are more interested in a) freebies and b) the actual games.

Having said that, I’m against the whole booth babe thing for two reasons.

  1. Hello, I’m a core gamer too. You won’t show me that you care about MY custom by employing booth babes. (This reminds me of the time I went with some male colleagues to an engineering show and we went to one booth and the guy reached under the desk and gave me a fluffy toy and gave my colleagues brochures about the product. I did not make this up, it really happened. I gave him A LOOK and he rapidly gave my colleagues fluffy toys too, saying it was for their partners or children. I’m still mad about that even though it was several years ago. Mostly because my colleagues said nothing, they just looked embarrassed while I ranted.)
  2. It just reinforces conventions being sites where sexism (in the form of ogling random women and commenting on their hotness or otherwise) is accepted practice. I know plenty of female gamers, both computer and tabletop, who avoid conventions, for this reason. If you want women to go to cons, they need to feel both welcome and safe. It’s a million years away from the scifi cons which often have women on the steering committees, on the panels, and still have plenty of skimpy cosplayers wandering around.

Oestrus has a good post up discussing her mixed feelings around companies using booth babes. Where on the one hand, it seems to work for them as a PR strategy, and on the other, it sends very mixed messages to gamers about how they can or should treat women.

The other story I’ve seen this week about sexism is around a feminist kickstarter who got some great PR from all the predictably heinous sexist comments on her youtube promotional video. I think that the more people who realise that trolls leaving hateful and sexist comments on feminist blogs has now become expected, the better, because maybe once it’s out there, people will start taking it seriously.  I do wish her luck, although I’m sure she won’t need it. And at the same time, I am awed at how smart she has been about turning the hateful comments into a promotional tool for her videos.  You go, girl.

I was also shocked at the anti-semitic comments that turned up too. Anti-semitism always feels very old fashioned to me, like something we read about in history books rather than experience every day. But clearly there are a number of people where you just have to scratch the surface and it’s still a kneejerk reaction.

Still, assuming the vast majority of gamers don’t actively subscribe to the hate but either go along with it because it’s what their group do, or else try to ignore it so they can just get on with gaming, what can anyone do about this side of the ‘gamer culture’? Can it change, or are unmoderated arenas like XBOX Live always going to fall to the haters?

This is a post that caught my eye by Meguey on Gaming as Women, about how she tried to change the ‘micro culture’ of her gaming group. This isn’t about sexism, it’s about how she noticed that one of the guys in the group always seemed to be left out, and how she decided to change that. It took 3 years, and that was with a group of people that she knew, and who respected her opinions.

She has some advice for people who do want to change the culture around them:

Call people in the micro-culture on the things you want to see shift. This sounds as scary as anything, but it’s not a cry to confrontation and accusation, it’s as simple as not laughing at a joke you find offensive. Then it’s saying “Yeah, not so cool / funny, dude”  when someone makes such a comment / tells such a joke. Then it’s talking to the people in the micro-culture privately to say “Hey, I’m done with being a wise-ass kid, y’know? It’s time for me to stop talking like I think women are second-class. Because that’s just crap.” You don’t need to be confrontational,  just own your own growth.

See, all it takes for the haters to win is for the good guys to do nothing.

More on female costuming in games: Dragon’s Dogma, Tera, Guild Wars 2

So, which of these games is the odd one out among Dragon’s Dogma, Tera, and GW2? If you answered Dogma (because it’s PS3 only) or GW2 (because it has no release date yet), then you’re technically correct but go to the back of the queue.

The answer is Dragon’s Dogma because it gives you a very wide range of looks to pick for your character, covering all the fantasy staples from full ornamented platemail to viking chicks in string bikinis and furry boots.  Unlike the others which stick you in something godawful. I’ve been intrigued with Dragon’s Dogma for awhile since playing the demo at ComicCon last year, and downloading the demo convinced me that it is the one to look out for if you’re interested in an open world fantasy game with a more active combat style than typical MMOs.

You also get to customise your own companion/ pawn, so I made a wizard who looks a bit like my RL partner so I can order him around (don’t pretend you never do this either! Smile ). There’s a good set of choices including fat and skinny characters, stances that are hunched at the shoulder or shoulders-back/boobs-out, and choices of voice actor too. One other thing, which works surprisingly well, is that all the hair and makeup options can be used for characters of either gender. So if you want that gothy male mage with eyeliner or a female warrior with a buzzcut and tattoos, you can do it (or, ya know, vice versa).  I’m really taken with what I saw on the demo, and especially liked being able to target specific parts of the monster in ways that affect the fight. For example, shooting a flying monster in the wings to bring it down, or cutting the snake head from a chimera to stop the poison. Also there seem to be different tactics that can be used, depending on you and your companions skillset and size/bulk – for example a large (and fearless) companion can grab the griffon by the leg as it takes off and wrestle it to the ground.

So thumbs up for Dragon’s Dogma from me, not sure if I’ll buy it at release but definitely aim to pick it up at some point. If you have a PS3 and like that type of game, try the demo.

Apart from the flexibility, what I really liked about the character generator was being able to create just about any fantasy character stereotype that I could imagine. See, I’m not against characters fighting in string bikinis or casting spells in belly dancer outfits, but I want it to be thematic and I want to have choices. Despite some of the clothing being quite skimpy, none of the characters actually looked like strippers. They looked like characters from fantasy art.  I think that’s a powerful point to take away.

More on clothing

Rohan has some screenshots of the crazy stuff his TERA character is wearing, this isn’t one of the prepubescent looking race, just daft armour. I rarely wish ill on any new MMO, but I won’t cry if TERA crashes and burns purely because those design decisions don’t deserve to be rewarded.

Kadomi has a brilliant three part roundup of her experiences in the GW2 beta (which are mostly positive). Go check them out:

Quest Mechanics

A look at the design manifesto (does GW2 fit with what arenanet have claimed?)

Barely covered (clothing for female characters in GW2)

The last link includes pictures of the cloth casters. Having looked at the TERA pictures first, my initial reaction is that GW2 isn’t that bad (see, it could be worse!). The Mesmer looks terribad in both male and female versions, however. Purely from a point of taste. I never really got that ‘dresses like a showgirl’ vibe from GW, the Mesmer there was more of a semi-kinky aristocrat which I think is a look I could go for more easily on a mage of dubious ethical purview. If I can’t have my frockcoat, breeches and riding boots back, I’m not going with the Mesmer for sure.

There’s also something very teen about the Necromancer look. I think it’s the somewhat gothic vibes along with fluffy pompoms on the boots.  I assume ‘perky goth’ is the design goal, but it makes her look about 14.

It is one thing to have a strong design direction, but I’m not fond of the look. I’m just glad I’ll have Dragon’s Dogma to fall back on for my fantasy staples. Even Diablo 3 is starting to seem more appealing, gearwise.

[D3] In which I warm to Diablo 3, but not to the demon hunter stilettos

I have a theory that while female models in games pretty much started out based on underwear models and haven’t moved on significantly from there (depending on whether you think Sonic is female or not), graphic artists are now tending towards two male forms for all portrayals of men in games.

1. Bald space marine

2. The guy from Assassin’s Creed

I think we should applaud this diversity, since some of us like our guys lithe and … err… assassiny. In fact, if Blizzard had only made their original male blood elf model look more like Ezio (which admittedly would have required a time machine since TBC was released first IIRC), I bet none of the beta testers would have whined about them looking gay.

This is a roundabout way to introduce the topic of Diablo 3, which I have been playing some more this weekend as and when the servers allow it. So without more ado, this is the demon hunter.



The top two characters are the level 1/ starting male and female demons hunters. The guy at the bottom hunter is the demon hunter from the end of beta, and the other chick is the Vanquisher from Torchlight. I just had two points to make here:

1. You can see that the dude is getting gradually more assassin’s creed-like over time

2. those thigh high stilettos are TERRIBLE. I really wasn’t over-reacting when I said I hated them. That character in the top right looks as though she’s going to strip, or go to a BDSM party, or pose for a pin up. I wanted a female version of the male dude. The comparison with the Vanquisher is fun because the two characters have a similar look and are wearing similar gear. But because the Vanquisher has sensible boots and a stronger pose, she strikes a better balance between sexy and badass. (NB. I think the female demon hunter is a beautiful piece of art if you wanted a pin up model, but it’s oddly over-sexualised compared to every other character in the game. I blame the boots.)

I am looking forwards to playing D3 at release, and have been making more of an effort to note any cool tweaks and updates to the genre that have impressed me particularly.

  • I like the events that you encounter in the dungeons, they make a neat change to standard boss fights and I can see there’s lots of scope for Blizzard to add more of them as time goes on.
  • The achievements work really well in Diablo also. I’m not an achievement minded person, but I was thinking about how to do some of them (like kill 20 mobs in one go) and which build would be best suited for it. There is plenty of scope for fun play there.
  • It feels quite quaint that the characters are so non-customisable, and that the loot will tend to end up looking samish also. I assume unique items and sets will have different looks to them.
  • I love how the game keeps track of your ‘high score’ for things like killing streaks on both mobs and destroyable items, and number of mobs killed in one blow even if you don’t hit the achievement. It gives a good sense for when you’re getting better.
  • I like the voiced lore items and journal entries. I did encounter at least one lore item (skeleton I think) which was not voiced, which struck me as an unusual polish fail.
  • The character voicing is not very good. Some of them are pretty terrible. Particularly the accents. I realise they may be the same actors as previous versions but they’re still not very good. But I feel less waspish about it now, because the male demon hunter sounds very cool.
  • I am not one of the people who complains about lack of talent trees, I prefer not having to think too much about which abilities to take. And the beta only covers the first few levels so it’s a bit soon to judge how well anything is balanced. But this is also Diablo and mobs come at you in packs, so the classes with the better AEs are easier to play.
  • I’ve played the beta through on the barbarian and demon hunter now, as well as the wizard. On the demon hunter I mostly did this in open groups so that I could try out the co op. The barbarian was simple but effective, it wades in and swings around with a large axe (or dagger in my case since the dagger had better dps) and bodies fly around. The demon hunter seemed to be a single target dude in an AE world, but I love that they have a channeled ability to fire the crossbow off like a machine gun. That’s very bonkers, but amusing,
  • Co-op groups mostly consist of people doing speed runs. Even if they don’t say so, that’s what they will do. Many of them will also have speed boosts on their gear so it’s easy to end up running after everyone else through corridors of dead mobs and then seeing the end of quest achievement pop up before you get there. D3 does make everyone zone into boss fights together, so you will at least get to see those. And it’s quick xp. In fact, if you want to level fast when the game goes live, just do co op runs.
  • No one, but no one, is going to enjoy having to deal with lag and server disconnects in the single player game.

Oh, we haven’t had a feminist post for at least a month

I have a lot of sympathy with Effraeti, who waxes lyrical on why she isn’t a feminist. She reminds me a lot of myself a few years ago when I was straight out of college. I was getting on with things, working as an engineer, and maybe wincing at women who pull the “I’m a girl! I’m so bad at maths” shtick a bit for encouraging the general public to think that people like me didn’t exist. And of course, I was always a gamer. I don’t  much care for the label ‘female gamer’ , it isn’t meaningful to me.

One difference is that I did take Home Econ at school instead of Woodwork/ Metalwork because I’m pragmatic and figured cooking would be a more useful skill in my future independent life, to which I was counting down the hours. It is however true that none of the boys in my class seemed to see this. Another difference is that I never felt strongly about feminism. I could see it had been useful, equal pay and anti-sexism at work and all. But that was all done.

It’s only recently that I see how badly feminism has failed so many women who actually are putting themselves out there, trying roles that used to be seen as exclusively male, and not accepting gendered stereotypes. This is because it has become the preserve of social science academics who sit around talking about media studies and privilege. So of course everyone else is out of the loop.

Anyhow, the short form here is that I think Effraeti is wrong to keep that door closed. And it’s because although there will always be some women (like her, like me even) who see social structures saying “girls can’t do X” and think “I’ll show them!” and who happen to have lots of male friends and don’t see themselves as particularly girly. And maybe you’ll never really see the way in which society discriminates against women (and this is different from racism, et al because women are not a minority group), or wonder why even though you think you are one of the guys, they don’t always seem to act like you are when it would count. (If you think it’s bad now, imagine if you had kids; mothers are deeply discriminated against in the workplace.)

But equality, social justice, recognising societal power imbalances and finding room for everyone to have their voice, are important for girly girls (or boys) just as much as for engineers. You shouldn’t have to act ‘like a man’ to get people to take you seriously.

In gaming that means that female gamers might be good, might be bad, might be roleplayers, might be pet collectors, might be … anything that male players are. But you’d have to be blind not to see how games tend to pander to a male audience right now. You can claim you don’t care, that you like military shooters and want your female characters to be wearing bikinis and high heels — and if you do then you are well catered for. It could be different. There could be a wider variety of games to suit different players, both male and female. More romance, more social play, less killing, more cooperation, more exploring. But when you say that you’re a female gamer and not a feminist you’re effectively saying that you don’t even want to have that discussion. Heaven forfend you ever comment on character boob size or sexist smack talk. Maybe you don’t want to, maybe you like those things or feel you can easily ignore them. But wouldn’t it be nice to have more options for those people who do want them, wouldn’t it be nice if those women — so unlike us — who do experience sexism online didn’t have to?

You don’t like to call yourself a feminist, I don’t like to call myself a female gamer. But we’re still sisters, under the skin.