Feministic approach to the gaming industry

I am a female. But I spend most of my free time playing a male in a male dominated game. It’s a guilty pleasure, but nothing makes me de-stress like solving puzzles and being engaged in colorful and artful stories. I can lose myself for hours on end and I can blast away all the characters I find annoying (except those damn NPCs- non playable characters) and still be the hero at the end of the game (or villain, depends on the mood/day). Though there is so much to love about games, there is so much that is still a work in progress.

Video games are on the cusp of a revolution – gender, race, sexual orientation (oh yes, it matters) and creed. Unfortunately this revolution is being ignored by the “majority” of gamers but of course that is to their detriment. Those who are not considered the “average gamer” are among the first to realize that video game culture is at a cross roads. For too long, women gamers, gamers of color and LGBTIA gamers have played along with stories that are meant for straight white men. Sometimes women are degraded, religious views are mocked, and bigoted stereotypes are perpetuated. But a demand for new and different types of stories is beginning to emerge.

So what exactly is the problem?

The problem is this: there are a vast amount of games that allow you to choose what character you want to play. This creation option can be limited to a few small special changes or you can have unlimited possibilities. Take Oblivion (2007 rated best game) for example, you have all the details to build whatever custom created character you would like. Part of playing the game is being invested in the character and the quickest way to do that is to build it yourself. While what you look like doesn’t change anything pivotal in the game (read: storyline), the social choices that you choose for your character does. The game allows you to strengthen or weaken certain abilities and in turn, the game will adapt to you. Through quests – or small story lines that advance the total story that your character is going through – you can experience these social changes. These small but interesting tidbits draw gamers in by allowing us to go back and play the game over and over and have different outcomes. Overall, though, they make us invested in the storyline. If you’re playing a game, the dialogue and the adventures that you go on need to be somewhat believable that it’s happening. If not, you’re not interested in the game and you’re not going to play. Believe it or not, being invested in the character that you play is super important – especially if you get to make choices about who you are.

But what does this have to do with equality? Really, it has everything to do with the choices that you make as a gamer. By creating your own character, you can do anything you want to make it “yours.” The hair color may mimic your hair. The gender of your character might match your identity – or perhaps you prefer to play the a different gender (since after all, playing a game allows you to experiment with different social things that you might not get to in real life). You can adjust and play with this throughout a game. But do video games allow for people who are not the dominant dempgraphic of straight white men to partake in this experience?

RPGs or Role Playing Games are the most common games that allow the user to make decisions on the character that they’re playing. These are games specially designed to allow the gamer to build up certain abilities and therefore the character creation can be pivotal. This allows for the open-ness to play a female or a male and sometimes (as in the recent hit Fallout 3) you can choose what social attributes you might contribute to the game – such as being a “daddy’s girl” or a “black-widow.” These build on your character’s background and personality. When interacting with other characters in the game (NPCs – they are non-playable) the player will have dialogue that may not be given had that characteristic not been chosen.

For the developers, this is a crafty tool – it allows for a gamer to be comfortable with handing over $60 for a game that they will be able to play over and over again without having repeated options. But for others – this added benefit brings much richness to a storyline and creates a deeper connection with the game itself. The enjoyment that is created is unmatched. Not only does that make for a company to sell a boatload of their product, but the gamers will look into other games produced by said company. Gamers can be many things, but one thing they pride themselves on is loyalty to a gaming company that will provide them an experience and they will debate with anyone who says otherwise. In fact, this is what the gamer culture has based itself on (Nintendo vs. Sega)

But to experience these added tidbits in the game, the player has to be willing to walk that path. In most games (RPGs mainly) the player is wrapped in dialogue of their choosing. There are a handful of responses and depending on which one you choose, the story line may differ. Here lies a recent debate (turned flame war on the internet) in regards to a game Dragon Age 2.Almost every game (and I say almost because I clearly am not an expert on every video game ever published – indie or mainstream) that allows for a player to navigate through the dialogue options has ever really attacked the issue of sexuality. In retrospect this seems so obvious. Generally if people are going to have sex (regardless of gender) they’re going to speak first. So why wouldn’t this be where sexuality of a character is addressed?

Dragon Age 2 has addressed this. The main character (a male – expecting different?) has the option for having sexual relations with other people who are central to the surrounding story. As the player, you can direct yourself through dialogue paths to become a heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual. All options are available to you, only you have to be the one to walk those paths. No problem – right? If you don’t want two of the options listed, then you don’t have to click on the dialogues that result in the undesired behaviors. However this has caused a shocking uproar in the gaming community and has brought to light the huge stratification of the gaming market.

Straight gamers have been crying about not being recognized. They have expressed that they are not represented in this game and the homosexual options are trampling their rights as a heterosexual player. But what about all the games they are represented in? The vast majority (I would venture to say all most all) are representative of their behavior and attitudes. What about all the games where homosexuals are not being represented? If given a game with a romantic interlude – with a character that they’ve created and made certain choices for – they are forced to have their sexual orientation ignored and must play a straight gamer.  Where is the justice in that?

Or let’s talk about the unrepresented area of female gaming. While females are climbing the ranks and infiltrating the developers – there has been movement towards equality of the sexes in games – however there are massive amounts of games where one is forced to play a male. The current attitude (although it’s starting to change – due to a playmate of the year also being a competitive gamer) is that females do not play “hard-core games.” These are games that are either an RPG game or a First Person Shooter. These titles would include Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty – but newsflash – women play these games. I have been playing games like these and more since I was a little girl and guess what? I always had to play the boy.

Not only do these games not acknowledge females as having every possibility of being the main character, but they depict women in such a demeaning way. Women are just a means to an end. In Grand Theft Auto – women are prostitutes (not all women are prostitutes but all prostitutes are women) and you can kill them and take their money. That’s pretty much the only reason why they’re in the game at all. Does it really add to the story line that much? Another example is of a game titled Postal. In the game – you can kill women for no reason. But the worst part is that every woman is wearing a skirt, so when the player does shoot them for whatever reason, they will always fall away from you so you can look up their skirt. Not to add insult to injury but the player can also pee on them if they desire – but they can pee on anything so that’s not just subject to the women that are killed.

Given the atrocious gender and sexual politics of most games, how do we start to make things better??

The answer is simple. There is a need for more women, more people of different religious backgrounds, more people with different sexual orientations, and more people with diversity in companies creating video games. These creators have the power to make games that speak to another audience. An audience that has been ignored. This shift in the diversity in the developers’ office has been a slow one, but it’s gaining more momentum. With small steps (like Dragon Age’s sexual options) it opens the door to communication between gamers and allows for a forum to express atrocities, grievances, or satisfaction.

Developers are becoming diverse in their staff to include people of all races and now genders – to deliver a story that doesn’t have to lend itself to stereotypes but are actually written from true perspectives and we are entering an age where this is and should be including a sexual identity.

Not all games should have an emphasis on the character’s sexual preference, however why is it that every time you play an RPG, the romantic options are always for a heterosexual choice? If sexual encounters are an option – given the game – and we’re allowed to spend hours and hours developing what our characters look like, think like, back history, and an insane more options for character creation, then why can’t we choose what sexuality they have?

This is a new dawn for developers. Will they evolve and open rise to the challenge? Or will they miss this opportunity for a chance at egalitarianism?

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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