Jenny is a gamer, and she is looking forward to trying her new video game, where she plays a hero wandering through a fantasy environment. She is playing a male character as there is no female avatar available. What she doesn’t expect is the opening scene where a naked woman lolls around in bed, and then proceeds to frolic around the bedroom in a skimpy towel. Jenny rolls her eyes and keeps playing. Later in the story, when she encounters a busty, topless woman chained to a dungeon wall, Jenny turns off the screen. This game’s story is not for her.
Games are the latest medium for telling stories. Like all stories, they are used as a vehicle for our pleasure, for learning lessons, for wish fulfilment. But games are special – they let us influence and interact with the story through gameplay, letting us be the hero, the central protagonist.
The global gaming industry is now bigger than the western movie industry, and still growing. So who are the players? We’ve moved on from the domination of male gamers in the 90s. The demographics have changed so much that recently Daily Dot announced that teenage boys – who are often stereotyped as the biggest gamers – are now only 17 per cent of the market. Adult female and male gamers are now gaming in even numbers at 35 per cent.
Despite these statistics, there is substance to the perception that games are telling stories for one audience: male, hetero gamers. According to a 2012 interview on gaming website Penny Arcade, Geoffrey Zatkin from Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR), the largest specialty video game research firm in the world, less than half of the roughly 600 games with a gendered hero have the option to play as a female, including top game franchises such as Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield. Of these games, around two dozen have a female-only avatar. Upon seeing the lack of a female option in popular game Assassin’s Creed, Ashley Johnson, the voice of the famous female game character Ellie from The Last of Us, told website Videogamer in an interview this year, ‘I was like, “Give me a fucking break! It’s 2014! How many video games do you have to make to realise maybe have an option to have a female be in there?”’
Many of these games tell the damsel-in-distress story. In the popular Mario franchise, the female characters have nothing to say beyond ‘Thank you for saving me,’ and in the 2012 New Super Mario Bros, Princess Peach needed rescuing once again. Even the famous Bioshock Infinite, which was the DICE Awards 2013 Game of the Year, is a damsel-in-distress story.
This has become a major topic of interest for gamers in Australia. Benjamin, a Melbourne gamer and feminist in his early thirties, pointed out that some games with a female-only protagonist ‘include plenty of not so great characters like [in] Bayonetta or Lollipop Chainsaw – hyper-sexualised, ultra-feminine, two-dimensional. The kind of characters we see rarely for men.’ In these games, the female characters are reduced to icons of visual entertainment, and secondary points in the plot. Gaming vlogger Anita Sarkeesian pointed this out in her YouTube series ‘Tropes vs. Women’, and had such a hostile response, including death threats, that she has had to go into hiding.
The sexualisation of women is reinforced in the gameplay. The Witcher, a medieval-themed hack and slash game, contained a collectible sex card quest, which encouraged players to sleep with every available female character. The collector’s edition also came with a book of artwork of topless women.
Adding to the inherent sexism of gameplay mechanics is the experience of being marginalised in multiplayer sessions. Language used by male, hetero gamers creates barriers for other players. For example, gamers in World of Warcraft trivialise the word ‘rape’, using it to describe what has happened to their character when they are defeated by a monster. First-person shooter games, such as Battlefield 4, are notorious for the way that they treat female gamers. Phoebe, an avid gamer in her mid-thirties, has experienced this firsthand on many occasions. ‘Being a lone female in an online match has its advantages and disadvantages. If my female voice rings out over the microphone, my skills can be underestimated, giving me an edge. Adversely, I can be called a plethora of names (bitch, whore) and laughed at even if I’m on the top of the leaderboard. In those moments, I let the slurs fly because I’m winning. But sometimes the language used online is just so offensive even when not directed at me that I’ll forfeit my progress to leave the match and those players behind.’ These players, who dominate the airwaves of certain popular games, don’t care who they offend with the derogatory language, negatively affecting the likelihood of female players participating in shooter games.
In 2011, one self-described ‘straight male gamer’ famously complained to Bioware, the creators of Dragon Age II, that the game’s inclusion of additional plots and characters did not cater to his preferences, because the game contained the option for gay relationships. Paul, a long-time gamer in his late thirties, supported this attitude, advising that he would not play games that had male nudity.
Luke Miller, creator of My Ex-Boyfriend the Space Tyrant, which has a gay protagonist, has also experienced some negative reactions in forums, with comments like: ‘Will I get AIDS if I play this?’ and ‘What will be next – paedophile games?’ The comment that Luke found most revealing was a fairly innocent one: ‘Why did he have to be a gay spaceman, why can’t he just be a spaceman?’
‘Traditionally,’ says Luke, ‘games have been aimed at the straight male gamer. Anything that deviates from that, they aren’t used to being excluded.’
The industry continues to gratify this male, heterosexual privilege. A part of the problem is perception. Dr Katherine Phelps, who has a PhD in storytelling for computer game design, described one scenario from a course that she teaches. ‘I had my students run a survey every term. They were to watch the players at a local arcade game shop and answer three questions: “What are the most popular games? What games are most popular with the females? What is your favourite game?” Every term the men and women said the females preferred the non-violent games. But when the women listed their favourite games, they more frequently named Time Crisis as the one they most enjoyed, a first-person shooter. So people were seeing what they culturally expected to see, not what was really happening.’ There is a presumption of what kinds of stories female players want to be a part of. Elizabeth Deloria, a games critic and journalist living in Melbourne, says of her enjoyment of games with conflict: ‘Uhh, excuse me, I could decimate anyone here in a game of Crusader Kings 2.’ This is no surprise. Action and adventure, murder and mystery are all popular book and movie genres for women. Why should it be any different for games?
The problem is not just that games are predominantly telling stories for male audiences, they are being produced for a specific sub-market. Hayden, a gamer, had this to say on the topic: ‘I think the main issue with the imbalance between females and males in the games world is to do with the companies still pandering to an audience they believe is dominated by 90 per cent young males. Which is definitely not the case anymore. Yet companies still make games that feature mute, muscly men who save hot, skimpily clad women, because they think that the majority of their customers want that power fantasy.’ Later, when Bill, a Brisbane gamer, was asked the same question, he vehemently disagreed. He doesn’t understand why games should have to please everyone. ‘It’s just a game. It’s not serious. They’re a business, they should be able to make games the way they want to.’ He has a point. A business can do as it wishes. But it doesn’t make good business sense to ignore potential markets.
Is it good business that the industry continues to use ‘boothbabes’ to promote games at conventions? At last year’s Melbourne session of the PAX convention, a major gaming event held in multiple locations across the world, young women dressed provocatively, with no technical knowledge of the products they were promoting – known as ‘boothbabes’ in the industry – were hired to promote the game World of Tanks. Their job was to attract male gamers to come over to the stalls to check out the game, and to take photos with the girls. ‘Promo models [working] at conventions also means that “legitimate” women at conventions are thrown into the same basket,’ says Elizabeth DeLoria. ‘I did PR at PAX for a vendor and we were often treated and referred to as “boothbabes”.’
Bill from Brisbane can’t understand the problem. ‘They use hot males and females to promote products in pubs. How is this any different?’ The danger lies in the demarcation of roles at these gaming events. Men are expected to be in roles of knowledge, and women are presumed to be there in roles of sexual titillation.
The dominance of males in game development influences this attitude. While there is a respectable number, and tradition, of female writers in the industry, all other aspects, such as programming, art and level design are still dominated by males. The producers, or funders, of games are also typically male. ‘Which is probably why the male target demographic stays,’ says DeLoria. ‘You can see this in, say, how Remember Me almost didn’t get off the table because marketing and funding didn’t think a female protagonist would sell and literally told them they’d fund it if they made the protagonist male.’
Game companies defend their position by talking about the cost involved in offering multiple genders in a game. In an interview with technology news and media network The Verge earlier this year, French multinational video game developer and publisher Ubisoft’s technical director, James Therien, said female assassins were on the company’s feature list until ‘not too long ago’, but were cut as a matter of ‘focus and production’.
When making a game, a character has to be designed from scratch and can significantly add to the costs of game production. Publishers don’t see that it’s justified to create female characters. EEDAR revealed in 2012 that games with male characters sold better than games with a female lead, or with a female option. While there is truth to the argument for the costs involved in making models for games, once it is designed, it can continue to be used as a template. The initial investment is all that is required. Perhaps this is one reason why the top mainstream game company, Bioware, manages to include female avatars in all of its games.
The game writing or story integrity can also be compromised by the need to satisfy the male, hetero gamer. David Gaider, the lead writer from Bioware, has come under fire from the media for including a gay character, Dorian, in Dragon Age Inquisition, the third instalment in the Dragon Age series. To the media’s comments that the inclusion of a gay character was ‘shamelessly catering to “the gays”’ for profit, Gaider’s Twitter response was: ‘Because catering to straight white guys for profit instead is a higher form of pandering, I guess?’ Gaider continued to come under fire, with Twitter responses such as ‘because every fucking game in history is “catering to straight white guys”, why are you so fucking special?’ Still, much of the Twitter response was in David’s defence: ‘I’m a straight white guy and I am digging Dorian.’
Gaider took the opportunity to expand upon his philosophy in a following interview with gaming blogger Lady Insanity, particularly his preference for set sexualities for his characters.
Some characters have to be straight. Some characters have to be gay. Some characters have to be bisexual… The more complicated question is why did we decide there must be straight characters. Every time I said that if we had the resources, if we had enough romances to go around, I would prefer to have set sexualities. And that making all of them bisexual is a compromise of sorts – not one I really like, because bisexuality itself is not a compromise – it’s a distinct sexuality… We like to have set sexualities so we can tell different stories. We can have actual representation. We can tell stories so that they are bisexual stories adjacent to gay stories and straight stories, as well. It’s about having all types of people and not needing the ambiguity means we can include having that part of their character.
Still, inroads are being made. Games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Skyrim and Heroes of Might and Magic, have all offered gender choices for the avatar, with rich storylines, and have been hugely successful. Phoebe tells of her experience playing a top-selling game that broke new ground in characterisation. ‘The Last of Us – Left Behind, which has a young female character, Ellie, who turns out to be gay, broke my heart in all the right ways. I had to pause the game at that reveal because I was crying and couldn’t focus. Here was a game that had won a record-breaking number of Game of the Year awards that had a lesbian as the only playable character. I couldn’t believe it. I’ll be forever grateful to Naughty Dog and the cast, specifically Ashley Johnson, for being so brave and so true to the character of Ellie. It was an honour to play it and I think the game has paved the way for future games to be open to more diverse characters being playable.’
And good things have been happening since last year. Gone Home is breaking new ground, combining gameplay with a sensitively told story of a teenage girl discovering that she is gay. Beyond Two Souls is led by the character Jodie, a well-designed character with minimal sexualisation. Bioshock Infinite, a game about a delicate girl who can save a dystopian world, progressed the damsel-in-distress trope from a sexual narrative to more of a father–daughter one. Alien, Isolation will be released later in the year, and will star the heroine figure Ripley. The culture of gaming conventions is also changing, with GaymerX, focused on supporting LGBTQ gamers, having their first convention in 2013.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that a storytelling medium that empowers humans to tell their own stories, to be their own hero, and to be a hero to others is one of the most important cultural developments of the 20th and 21st centuries. Who will have access to this empowerment? Who will have the chance to experience for themselves what it’s like to be the best that they can be? Who will feel included and accepted and represented in this great storytelling multiplayer consciousness? We have progressed to the next level of inclusiveness, but it will take time for games, and players, to allow for everyone’s stories to be told.