The tiresome canard about how “sex(ism) sells” has been dealt with in a number of ways. Empirical studies demonstrate no correlation between a film or video game’s sexist/sexual content and its marketplace success, and we have evidence that suggests that among game industry doyens, this notion may simply be a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Industry analysis tells us that video games led by female characters receive a paltry 40% of the marketing budgets of male-led games; when such games fail to sell as well as their more lavishly supported competitors, the results are then used as empirical proof of the subjective view that saw them underfunded in the first place.
Circular reasoning par excellence.
But now, at least in the world of roleplaying gaming, the idea that sex and sexism sell is taking another hit from the opposite direction: we now have proof that games that resist sexist caricatures and that prominently feature women as strong and fully human characters can actually succeed where games more mired in outdated thinking have failed.
Shadowrun Returns, a video game based on the popular pen-and-paper RPG, and Pathfinder, a high fantasy Dungeons & Dragons-style game, are not only popular but profitable.
Shadowrun Returns, and its recently released sequel Shadowrun: Dragonfall, was noteworthy for being a successfully crowdfunded, independent enterprise. Its seed money came from a Kickstarter campaign that won it 1.8 million dollars—1.4 million more than the developers originally asked for. It was not, in any sense, billeted as a feminist or LGBT-positive game, necessarily, but it was also not sold to gamers as a misogynist masculinity-simulator grinding over an economy of objectification. It was sold as a strategic, turn-based roleplaying game, based on a beloved franchise, that just so happened to have excellent writing—and the beneficiaries of that writing happened to be a wide assortment of fascinating women and queer characters of all backgrounds.
Shadowrun: Troll Women and Dark Cybernetic Angels
Shadowrun’s cyberpunk, near-future universe was one that always dwelled in the comfortable embrace of decidedly queer shadows. Set in a world where a cataclysm in the early 21st century unleashed magic and the trappings of fantasy on an unsuspecting Earth, the action of your campaign takes place after Elves, Orks, and Trolls have settled into the geopolitical landscape of a darker, more dangerous world.
Of special note to me in the new video game franchise has been the way in which the game takes politics very seriously, weaving it into gameplay and the world itself. Dragonfall is set in the “Berlin Free State”—an anarchist hyper-collective that now rules one of Europe’s largest cities. The explorations of ideology here may not pass muster in a political science classroom, but you as a player are still asked to think critically—in both Returns and Dragonfall—about issues like racism, class, the complex lives of multiracial people, misogynist parental abuse, capitalism, religious fanaticism, and privilege.
This game—a heady mixture of everything that is supposed to be market poison, according to conventional wisdom—sells well, and has achieved critical acclaim. Goodness knows it’s claimed a not-insignificant share of my busy life.
The women who star in this game would hardly seem out of place in a queer community, for one thing, and are not limited to the classic archetypes of femininity in fantasy games; women here are healers, and heavy weapons experts—they are lithely small, and mountains of muscle who help your party break through walls or stuck doors. It is dreadful that Harebrained Schemes, the development house behind the Shadowrun video games, should have to be praised for remembering women are people—this ought to be the baseline for all narrative fiction—but credit where it’s due in our current society.
To say nothing of this being yet another nail in the coffin of the idea that games must not feature such women for fear of scaring away the “core demographic” (i.e. young white hetero/cis men).
Pathfinder: Dethroning a Dragon
Pathfinder traces a similar path—presenting women and LGBTQ (T-inclusive!) folks as people, and then profiting handsomely. In the world of pen and paper roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons was the undisputed king, one of the few such games that had held pride of place in the public consciousness, even among lay people who never touched a board game. D&D became to the public what World of Warcraft was for massively multiplayer online games: the Ur example of the genre and medium.
And now Pathfinder is outselling it. There are a number of reasons for this, but it is safe to surmise that its profoundly humanising portrayal of women and LGBTQ people certainly did it no harm. Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps still wearing the psychic scars of a bruising culture war in the 1980s over whether or not it was “satanic” and “bad for children,” is notoriously gunshy these days about sex—a notion that unjustly encompasses LGBT people.
Pathfinder offers all the delightfully familiar tropes of D&D style roleplaying: magic, dragons, kingdoms, bards, clerics, Elves, Dwarves, and then some. But it is significantly less ossified and constrained by the demands of a tradition stretching back to the 1970s. There was far less to undo or remake when Pathfinder debuted in 2009; it started from the ground up as a more inclusive fantasy universe where, shockingly, transgender people were permitted to exist alongside the dragons and the wizards.
The recent Pathfinder Adventure Path (ready made roleplay campaigns complete with setting, story, and character details) The Worldwound Incursion by Amber Scott prominently featured a trans woman archer married to a half-Orc paladin who also happened to be a woman, with subsequent installments co-starring a male cleric whose affections tended towards other men. Much as in Shadowrun women fill a variety of roles in this plot. The Crusader Queen Galfrey, a monarch with armour and a sword who knows how to use them, leads the battle against a demonic invasion; the goddess Iomedae who inspires her wears a similarly battle-hardened but righteous mien; the elegant goddess of dreams, Desna; a succubus warrior who struggles valiantly to redeem herself from evil (disproving biological essentialism while she’s at it), and more. What’s not to like?
Some Pathfinder artwork does continue to trend towards the cheesy side, sadly, with some women featured wearing armour or robes with certain swathes of them strategically removed. But on balance the game features a rich setting which does not deny, elide, or minimise the existence of meaningfully strong, and humanely portrayed LGBTQ and female characters, dethroning its venerable and conservative rival in the process.
So much for sexism selling.