07 December 2012

2012: The Year Sexism Came to the Forefront in the Games Industry

Earlier this week Square Enix was forced to pull a controversial Facebook marketing campaign for Hitman: Absolution after less than an hour.

The promotion urged users to place a 'hit' on their friends. What potential value the campaign's creators saw in encouraging potential customers to threaten their friends, even jokingly (if that is possible), proves questionable at best yet the reason for the removal of the promotion was not the virtue of this Facebook app, rather, it was the reasons you were asked to give as reason (certainly not justification) for the faux assassination attempt. 

Firstly participants were asked to select how the target would be identified by the assassin. Attributes included: "her ginger hair" and "her small tits" and "his small penis". 

After which users were asked to give the reason for the elimination, with options such as "she cheated on her partner."

There has been some speculation that this was perpetrated as a publicity stunt. Yet the expense of hiring an outside agency to produce the campaign and release it before shelving the app within 60 minutes would not overcome whatever sales might be generated by the promotion, if any were to be generated at all (which seems unlikely). If this was a stunt if was a very poor one indeed and if it was not then it was gross oversight by both the marketeers (you can read Leigh Alexander's excellent piece on the direction and focus of marketing in the games industry here) and Square Enix, both of whom green-lit the promotion before releasing it.  

Taken on its own the crudely sexual nature of the campaign is in quite poor taste yet the unfortunate reality is that there have been several incidents this year which have exposed shocking attitudes, sexual discrimination, and even outright abuse - some of it directed at colleagues from those within the industry. This is not to mention the vitriol with which women who aim to enter the games industry are often met. 

IO Interactive apologised, yet that is thoroughly besides the point, there should never have been a need for an apology, this promotion should simply never have happened.  

Within gaming there is also the ever present concept of the 'girl gamer'. There are no 'boy gamers', or at least no males who are called boy gamers, as such, the very act of placing a gender before the word 'gamer' creates an unnecessary and frankly archaic differentiation. In a world where political correctness has arguably gone too far it is remarkable that such a distinction exists in the world's largest entertainment industry. 

Of course the majority, 53%, of gamers are male and the percentage is likely significantly higher in the 'core' market. Yet regardless of whether someone is a core Call of Duty player or a casual Angry Birds player (and there are plenty who fit into both categories) they are still gamers (yes, believe it or not, they are) - this is equally true regardless of gender. In effect, if the term girl gamer were to die it would be no bad thing. 

When playing online there is often no way to know the sex of your fellow players unless their online ID informs you or they communicate through their headsets - at which point women are often ridiculed simply for their sex, regardless of their ability. Like it or not simply being a gamer is important, not the sex of the gamer, no more than their sexual orientation or religion. 

Hitman: Absolution was also the subject of negative attention over the infamous Attack of the Saints trailer which featured latex wearing assassin-nuns. At the time IO issued another apology, one would have imagined they would have learnt their lesson.   

Compounding this problem Forbes decided to interview a stripper for her take on the Saints. The interview drew forth such quotes as "you never see male assassins in a thong with dollar bills hanging out."

This is almost screaming as a cry for page-views: "successful new game featuring strippers + interview with a stripper about game = page-view bonanza." 

The post has been viewed over 16,000 times. Would a similar interview be conducted in the film industry? I'm not so sure, though I will happily correct this post if anyone can find an interview with a stripper concerning the accuracy of, say, Sin City

Crystal Dynamics, another Square Enix studio, has also been the focus of a hostile backlash this year after a Kotaku interview with Tomb Raider's executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, discussed Lara Croft being sexually assaulted. 

Rosenberg said: "and then what happens is her best friend gets kidnapped, she gets taken prisoner by scavengers on the island. They try to rape her, and-."

This was followed by a clarification from studio president Darrell Gallagher that "sexual assault is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game." 

There is sexual assault and even rape in other forms of popular entertainment, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire for instance, yet the witnessing of an act on TV or the reading of it in a book, is not quite the same as pressing buttons on a controller - if only for your character to escape their horrific fate. Perhaps in time, storytelling and gaming generally will advance to the point where such - though never acceptable - will at least be contextually permissible within the confines of the story.

The games industry simply, and regrettably, isn't there yet, certainly not when there is rampant discrimination and often abuse fielded towards female members of the industry and the gaming community.  Of course, if these situations are never represented in videogames or other mediums so much the better (I am no prude but I do not wish to see someone sexually assaulted even if it is 'acting'). 

Gearbox Software was also met with hostile publicity over Borderland 2's so called 'Girlfriend mode', this version of the game; actually known as Mechromancer mode, was referred to as a Girlfriend mode with a Girlfriend skill tree, on more than one occasion by the development staff. Essentially an ultra-easy mode for newcomers the implication was obvious, girls are not good at games. 

Mechromancer mode is a good idea, and one I've argued should be brought to more games in future. Yet to suggest women are worse gamers is disingenuous especially, coming as it did, from developers themselves.

GameRanx recently ran a story on Halo 4 having to be scaled down, in the piece the author quoted 343 Industries' Kiki Wolfkill and followed by saying "yes, that is his name." Wolfkill is a woman, not being intended as any form of brag by any means and certainly not with the purpose of being an annoyance, I pointed this out to the site's editor who promptly corrected the mistake.

It should be noted that the editor in question, Ian Miles Cheong, is a staunch feminist and didn't write the original post. Even so such slips are unfortunate.

This was either an honest accident, the result of poor research, or a flawed assumption. Either way these little mistakes are hardly encouraging when they are continually compounded by the game industry's often disturbing attitude towards women.

In late November Twitter was overwhelmed - it is too generic a term to say 'taken by storm' given the significance of what happened - by the trend #1ReasonWhy.

The trend related to the discrimination faced by women in the industry and why it is so important to fight for equality in gaming, both in the games themselves and in development studios, publishing houses as well as in the game media.

There are far too many examples to go through yet here are some of the worst:

"None of my women developer friends will read comments on interviews they do, because the comments are so nasty" - Charles Randall; staffer, Capybara Games.

"Once heard an art manager say 'we don't need anymore women, they're more trouble than they're worth' as he viewed applicants" - Gabrielle Kent, games lecturer.

"Because I'm sexually harassed as a games journalist, and getting it as a games designer compounds the misery" - Lillian Cohen-Moore; journalist, games designer.

"Because conventions, where designers are celebrated, are unsafe places for me. Really. I've been groped" -  @filamena; designer, freelance writer.

You can read more here and here. Though far less obviously malicious in intent than any of examples listed above perhaps one of the most illuminating points during the #1ReasonWhy campaign - if it can so be called - was Gamasutra's decision to associate a picture of high heeled shoes with their piece on the story. The image was not particularly sexual or suggestive in nature yet it was regrettably stereotypical and in the majority of cases utterly non-representative of the people who work in the industry - game studios are simply not formal enough for such attire to be necessary.

Gamasutra subsequently changed the image to that of Wendy the Welder, presumably after the inappropriateness of the original picture, given the context, was highlighted.

(The original image can be seen here, not terribly bad by any means but unfortunate given the circumstances.)

Google 'booth babe controversy' and there will be an article on almost any major industry event from any of the past ten years. They aren't going anywhere yet nor are they in anyway necessary either, again an indictment of the industry. This year saw a furor over a misogynistic Asus Tweet which admired the rear of one of the technology company's booth babes.

Similarly booth babes stirred a negative reaction at CES in January and then there's this:

There's little that needs to be said here except that any story on booth babes will, in most circumstances, feature plenty of pictures of booth babes (sorry, here you'll have to settle for the image above). And that's often regardless of whether the piece comes from within the game's media or the media generally so yes, the game industry does not have a monopoly on the fault here.

Ben Kuchera, Penny Arcade's editor, recently wrote an editorial 'Games with exclusively female protagonists don't sell (because publishers don't support them)'. 

In it he explored the publishing operations and marketing budgets behind dozens of games and concluded that publishers simply don't volunteer the necessary resources to make female-centric games major hits. Think about Portal and Tomb Raider are perhaps the only two games in that category which have enjoyed continued substantive success. It's even posited that such games are sent out to die. 

Perhaps they are, look through your game shelf, how many titles feature a female protagonist? Chances are not many.

Even Mass Effect 3, which has been used by university courses as a positive example of women in games, is not entirely balanced - the trilogy uses the default male Shepard for all of it's marketing (reasonable enough given that more people would be familiar with the male version - itself a result of male Shepard being more heavily marketed) but within the game itself there are seven straight relationships for male Shepard's and two for female. While there are two gay relationships male Shepard can pursue as opposed to four lesbian relationships. 

Technically there are four straight female relationships yet [Spoiler alert] Thane dies while Jacob leaves Commander Shepard for another woman [Spoiler ends]. In fairness to BioWare they've done more than almost anyone to even the odds and EA, despite any other criticisms that may be leveled against them, have done more much to foster the LGBT gaming and developer community.

However, the status of LGBT's in gaming is an argument to be debated in another post.

I have touched on this subject before and as a result of something I have not mentioned here. Sexism and misogamy did not force its way into the game's industry this year nor are they by any means exclusive to gaming yet the scale of these problems in this industry is staggering and the fact that so many of these blunders are perpetrated by industry 'professionals' is mystifying and mortifying in equal measure. 

Videogames are a young medium, and they are an artform (regardless of what The Guardian has to say on the matter), but it remains an emerging industry and one with growing pains. We owe it to ourselves to remember that regardless of what games we play we are all gamers. Equally we need to recall that Halo 4 had women developers, as did Assassin's Creed, so too has Tomb Raider (including the game's lead writer Rihanna Pratchett). 

We owe it to these women to reflect on what they go through to provide us with our entertainment and try to make the sexism and misogamy as insignificant a part of work - and game - life as possible. 

1 comment:

  1. Hey Stephen, great read! I'm with you on all of these points except this one:

    "Of course, if these situations are never represented in videogames or other mediums so much the better"

    I disagree. I DO think that using rape to portray one of the obstacles a heroine must over come is cheap. Gosh golly there are so many other things you could threaten a protagonist with and we never see a male protagonist getting threatened with rape in games, so on that score I'd ask for more balance in story telling or less laziness. Mind you I think Drake would be cursing and squealing with terror at the thought of getting molested by some big, swarthy fellah...

    But my point is that games are maturing with it's audience. Not as quickly as it's audience I think but they are maturing. You don't want to play a Twilight game where the final scene portrays the twinkling hero holding hands shyly with the expressionless heroine, do you? Boooring!
    That is why Mass Effect is my favourite game of the year. It broke my heart! I wept like I haven't wept since I watched Braveheart as a teen. (well that's not true, there was Pan's Labyrinth a few years ago but you get my drift).

    There was real loss, a real price to victory. It was bitter sweet, heartrending and worth every minute. Taking away any part of that price, because it was painful to watch or because it offends us or whatever the reason, would have diminished the story.

    If games are to become as mature a medium as books, theater and movies we must embrace and encourage the right and the moral obligation to use the medium to look at our darkest fears, to criticize our worst failings and to really look at our darkest future projections.

    In short we don't need rape out of games, we need a broader spectrum of games that touch on the expanse of their consumers. And we need to know what a game is about before we buy it, including possible offensive scenes.

    Finally I would add one last thing that really, really ticked me off regarding the new Tombraider. And I forget exactly when and who said this (one of their people at E3 I think?) but the gist was this:

    "Our players don't identify with Lara. They want to protect her instead."

    :o( what a jerk thing to say, I mean really!

    - Aggie