The genesis of this blog came from an article that I wrote for See Page XX examining prevalence of sexist depictions of women in different areas of gaming. Before you read anything else here, you should really go read the article. (Yes it’s important enough to link twice.) If you find yourself wanting to argue with the article, please read this post here elucidating common arguments against my findings and clarifying some points regarding my criteria and methods.
My goal is to make this a place you can point people to regarding specific issues pertaining to sexism in gaming.
If this is your first time visiting my blog, welcome! If you don’t want to read chronologically, consider checking out this guide on how to use this blog. If you’re a feminist or ally looking for a specific post to use as a reference, then visit this guide here.
Overwatch, the hit new shooter/MOBA released by Blizzard has been taking the internet by storm lately. (That is, until the internet collectively lost its damn mind over Pokemon Go this past week.) As of mid-June, they had already accumulated more than 10 million active players, no mean feat considering that it was released less than two months ago.
Since the beginning of its development, one of the major talking points that has been emphasized in press pieces is that Blizzard was trying to design with an eye to diversity. Like the piece on Kotaku proclaiming that Blizzard wanted to “do women better”, which showed Widowmaker displaying a whole lot of ass cleavage:
I’ve written about Overwatch before. (In fact, people talking trash about my Overwatch posts are still a reliable source of occasional traffic spikes from Reddit, which is a bit surprising two years later.) And the game’s recent release, along with the fact that it seems diversity is still being used as a talking point to promote the game – as evidenced by this piece published just 3 days in advance of the release, made me think that it would probably be worthwhile taking a second look at Overwatch to see how it’s shaped up.
Overwatch Characters and Gender
The last time I wrote about Overwatch, 6 out of the (then) 14 characters that had been announced were female, however, 1 character – Bastion – was genderless. If you don’t count Bastion, that made for a roster that was 46% female – not too shabby. At the game’s release, it featured 8 female characters out of 21 characters that have a gender – which was only 40%. However, as of yesterday, a new female character was announced – Ana – which brings the ratio up to 9 out of 21 gendered characters, or 42%.
So, you know. It’s not fifty-fifty, which is disappointing from a game that says it wanted to “do women better”. How hard would it have been to make one of the weirdo characters, like Winston or Zenyatta, female? And sure, 42% is still a damn site better than almost every game I’ve ever bothered to review numbers for on this blog. But I tend to think that to “do women better”, you should at the very least reflect their levels of representation in the actual world. And we won’t even talk about how there are ugly or weird looking male characters, but all of the female characters except for one are in their mid-20s and have flawless skin – except for Ana. And even then, the only concession to her age is white hair and maaayyybbbbe a hint of an eye wrinkle.
It’s worth noting that all of that completely ignores the issue of queer and nonbinary gender identities. Since the canon doesn’t say otherwise, it has to be assumed that all 21 of the gendered heroes are cisgender, which is – again – disappointing from a game that seems to be trying to sell itself, at least in part, on the diversity of its character’s designs and backgrounds.
But overall, those turned out to be minor irritants compared to the embarrassing levels of racism (with a sprinkling of ableism) in the hero backstories and alternate character designs. Hooray!
So out of a lineup of 22 characters, you have exactly 1 black person – Lucio. And YES I get that there are other characters who are visible minorities – Symmetra, Pharah, Hanzo, etc. But what about McCree and Soldier 76, who are both from the United States? Or Tracer, who is from the UK? Or Widowmaker, who is from France? Or Mercy, who is from Switzerland? All of these are countries with diverse populations! Black people live in all of these countries! Coding all of the Western first world nations as white is problematic as hell. (And no, Widowmaker does not count as a PoC because she’s blue.)
So with all of that in mind, it is doubly problematic that Lucio – the only black guy – is a black guy from the slums. And sure, he’s from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. And sure he was “fighting the man”. But the core concept was “black DJ from the slums who stole things”. And when your go-to backstory for the only black guy is “poor thief”, that is super fucking problematic. The stereotype of black people as thieves and criminals is the reason why real actual black people get profiled by police and followed in shops and stores. And the fact that the video games industry is more than 87% white makes all of this even more problematic.
So. You know. What the actual fuck, Blizzard?
Similarly, Gabriel Reyes AKA Reaper is the only Latino in the game (you know, despite the fact that it actually would have made more sense to make McCree Latino instead of making him white). And what’s his backstory? Well, according to the Overwatch wiki:
Reaper admits to being a high-functioning psychopath, having a passion for murder and vengeance and is willing to kill even without a solid motivation. —Overwatch Wiki
And this is shitty for pretty much exactly the same reasons that making Lucio a black thief from the slums is shitty. When news coverage of Latin@s is 1% of total coverage, despite the fact that they make up 13% of the US population? And 66% of that coverage is about Latinos as criminals? Making THE ONLY LATINO in your game an actual fucking psychopathic murderer is shitty and racist.
Symmetra’s backstory and concept doesn’t read as racist to me, although I’ll admit to not being conversant enough with those particular stereotypes to be able to spot something that’s not completely obvious. However, where her backstory does fall down is a WHOLE LOT OF FUCKING ABLEISM. And sure, it’s obvious that it’s at least well-meaning ableism? But there is a lot of hinky mental health and neurotypical stereotyping going on. Again, according to the Overwatch Wiki:
Symmetra may be on the autism spectrum as implied in A Better World. In it, she says it used to “bother her” when people would ask where she fit on the spectrum; further, she appears to have what could be described as obsessive-compulsive disorder, namely her preoccupation with “perfection”, such as when she can’t resist fixing a crooked picture or how she notices the perfection of a child’s face. Traits common to OCD are also associated with autism. —Overwatch Wiki
For fuck’s sake.
First, if you want to have a character who is on the autism spectrum, EITHER DO IT OR DON’T. Don’t say well she miiiiiiight be, but then maaaaaybe not. Because what the fuck is wrong with having a heroic character who is autistic? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Second, fixing crooked frames or noticing a perfect face isn’t OCD – unless you spend your entire day checking and re-checking and re-checking every picture frame to make sure it’s straight, or obsessively scanning people’s faces looking for flaws, to the detriment of actually getting anything done. OCD is an anxiety spectrum disorder, emphasis on the disorder. If it doesn’t interfere with your daily life and ability to function, then it’s not OCD. Being particular about how things are placed or wanting things to be just so? That’s not fucking OCD, and it’s really shitty trivializing OCD that way.
Character Designs: Racist Tropes and Culture as Costume
So I’ve written before about how it’s really problematic making the character who is coded as “angel” blonde. But you know what’s even shittier? Making your angel character blonde, then having an alternate skin named “Devil” and giving that skin black hair.
Not following why that’s problematic? Well, allow me to quote myself:
Here’s another one I wish I didn’t see as often as I did. If you’re writing a race that has inborn magic powers, immortality, supernatural sexiness, preternatural senses, or is otherwise superior to normal boring humans, DON’T have the defining trait of that race be a real world racial trait.
Wait. No. I’m going to be more explicit.
DON’T MAKE THEM BLONDE. Because that is some creepy white supremacy shit right there – ESPECIALLY when combined with the Evil Darkies [aka: the trope of making evil races have dark skin] mentioned above.
That’s not to say you can’t have superhumans! … you can keep 100% of your magical superhumans and still have them not suck. Case in point, World of Warcraft. The good elves are purple and the bad elves are blonde. (Granted, there’s still an awwwwwful lot of fail of just about all types in WoW. But this is, at least, one small thing that they did manage to get right.)
When you tie the idea of “good” to traits that are White and “evil” to traits that are Not-White, THAT IS RACIST.
The irony is that Mercy’s other alternate skins depict her as a Valkyrie, which honestly I like about a million times better than either her default skin or her “Devil” skin. Boobplate aside, they did a great job of translating the character concept into a design appropriate to the character’s cultural background.
Zenyatta, Roadhog, and Pharah
Zenyatta is a bit of a tricky case in that he is a robot (who is gendered as male) monk who is never explicitly called out as being a Buddhist monk. But his backstory says he wanders the Himalayas, and the Saffron robes as well as descriptions of Zenyatta’s approach to philosophy make it pretty clear that he is supposed to be a Tibetan Buddhist (robot) monk. And, you know what, cool. There could be some cool elements about robots deciding to investigate humanity and ending up identifying as a particular gender and culture.
What is definitely uncool is tying Zenyatta strongly (if implicitly) to one culture, and then using other cultural costumes as alternate looks:
Look. This is a theme that I’m going to come back to for the next few designs, but I would think that after the stink that gets raised on the internet and social media every October, people would start getting the hint that using cultural attire or cultural dress for the sake of looking “cool” is not okay. Culture is not costume.
This gets even more problematic when Native and Aboriginal cultures are the ones being used as costume, because there is a global history of white people oppressing Native and Aboriginal peoples and then appropriating their culture.
Take Roadhog, whose has two alternate skins that show him in Maori dress:
And. Man. Here’s where I admit that things get real fuzzy and hard to tease out. Because while it’s not commented on officially, it’s possible that Mako is of Maori descent:
“It is highly likely that Roadhog is of New Zealand Maori heritage due to his real name (Mako) and alternate skin titled “Toa” which is the Maori word for “Warrior”.” – Overwatch Wiki
And honestly, I keep going back and forth on whether this is problematic or not. Roadhog’s pale skin reads more “white” than “Maori” to me. But then, the long struggle of Metis and non-status Native Canadians to be recognized as “legitimately Native”, makes me feel like that might not be a valid criticism. Except, Roadhog is said to come from the Outback of Australia – and the Aborigine people of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand are two different peoples – or at least as far as I’m aware.
So. I think for me the tipping point, the deciding factor of “is this okay?” is the fact that there are so many other examples of stereotyped depictions and appropriative costumes. This isn’t a singular misstep in a game that otherwise did its homework and tried to be respectful. Because if it was, you wouldn’t have something like Pharah and her alternate skins:
Pharah is explicitly, canonically Egyptian. And yet two of her alternate skins are explicitly North American Native – titled “Raindancer” and “Thunderbird”. And that is just such an obvious, straight-forward case of “what do we do for a cool alternate look for Pharah?” “I dunno, make her Native?” that I just can’t even.
And here’s the last example, the reason why I’m really not inclined to give the Blizzard development team a lot of slack on the question of “did they mean to be offensive” or not. Symmetra, who comes from India, has two alternate skins – which cost a lot of credits to unlock – that depict her as the Hindu goddess Kali:
It’s hard to overstate how gallingly tasteless and appalling this is. Hinduism isn’t like the worship of the ancient Egyptian gods. While using Ra as a skin for an implicitly Tibetan character is tasteless, it’s nowhere near on the same level of awful, because you’re talking about a dead religion. There are somewhere around 1 billion Hindu people on the planet, which makes this roughly equivalent to having a male character who can “level up” into Jesus. And obviously, game developers would never consider making Actual Fucking Jesus an unlockable skin, because that would be disrespectful. But because Hindus are mostly brown people, that makes having Actual Fucking Kali – who is a god that real actual people actually worship right now – somehow okay? No. Just. NO.
Conclusion: Overwatch has problems, but it’s still better than the rest of AAA gaming
As horrible as all this stuff is, Blizzard at least gets the absolute minimum of points for trying. Which is something that the rest of the AAA game industry is emphatically not doing, as evidenced by yet another year of Scowly McWhiteGuy being mostly the only thing on offer at E3.
So. You know. Reluctant kudos for trying? But “slightly less racist than the rest of the AAA game industry” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement that Blizzard should be proud of.
 I am unspeakably bitter that Pokemon Go has yet to be released in Canada
The third princess of the Charming dynasty is the unstoppable Princess Rowan Charming. Rescued by Fayola along with her mother Imogen, Rowan enjoys a life of safety and security with her two moms. Safe, that is, except when she sneaks off to go adventuring. Which only goes to show that you can take the princess out of the danger, but you can’t take the danger out of the princess!
Only one thing slows down our Rowan — her friend, Prince Sundara, who insists on coming along. Something about Rowan having only one hand and that he has to protect her. But he only gets in the way! Somehow Rowan has to make the boy understand that he’s not cut out for adventuring… before he gets hurt. …
But we also have stretch goals for two more princesses – Chandra and Nayeli! And we really hope that, since we’ve streamlined how the stretch goals will work to make unlocking subsequent princesses easier, we’ll get to do all three.
At the launch of the project, we’ve kept things simple: you get one book for $10, two books for $20, and so on. When the project funds, you can tell us which books you want: any of the new Princess Charming books that we’ve unlocked, any of Kadri or Fayola’s that rolled out in the last batch, or any combination thereof.
It’s also worth noting that if you’d like to support the project but don’t have any need for children’s books, we’re happy to donate your copies to worthy places like libraries, children’s hospitals, and shelters. We’ll send you a PDF of the titles, too, just so you’re not completely left out of the swashbuckling princess fun.
I hope that if you have children, or there are children in your life, that you will at least share the link to this campaign. The Kadri and Fayola books made as part of the first campaign are works that I am immensely proud of. Being able to tell the story of Kadri, a gender non-conforming princesses who wants to like “girl things” and “boy things”, and who doesn’t want what she can do to be limited by her gender was immensely satisfying – as this was precisely the sort of story that I could have benefited from as a child! I’m even more proud of being able to tell the story of Fayola, a black trans lesbian, without any aspect of that identity being presented as an obstacle, stumbling block, or flaw – while still showing her as heroic and worth rooting for.
Josh is a wonderful co-creator to have on this project, because both of us are committed to telling stories that don’t ordinarily get told. And both of us are committed to doing the work needed to make sure we get this right.
It will be awesome getting to tell the story of Rowan, a disabled woman raised by two queens who are heroes in their own right, who comes into her own as an adventurer and hero. But I very much hope that we get to write more stories than just Rowan’s, because diversity matters.
My daughter is nearly four years old, which means that gender and the social construction of identity around gender is something that I think about on an almost daily basis. For one thing, it’s really hard to not hyper-examine the nuances of social expectation when you live with a gnome who asks “why” about everything under the sun approximately three hundred times per day.
There’s also the issue of trying to fight the awful socialization she’s picking up from the other children at her daycare. In the past year, since my daughter has started to become aware of gender norms and expectations, she’s gone from a self-confident little girl who didn’t particularly care what she wore as long as it was brightly colored to a child who is scared of the dark and climbing, will only wear girl colors, is obsessed with Disney Princesses, and insists that she is a princess – along with all of the attendant awful baggage that comes with.
So I spend a lot of time trying to teach her that being female doesn’t mean being limited by these reductive stereotypes, although my resounding lack of progress on that front has been discouraging to say the least. Something else that I am trying (and failing) to introduce as a concept is the fact that there are more gender options available to her than “boy” or “girl”. There’s an entire universe of gender options out there that I didn’t know about growing up, and I don’t want her to feel shoehorned into a gender by her biology simply because that’s the way that the majority of her caregivers conceive of gender!
Of course, actually having these conversations turns out to be super difficult for two reasons:
Part of being able to teach her about this stuff involves finding language for it. And that’s HARD when talking about gender, because there is A LOT OF JARGON involved in educating yourself on gender issues that can be really hard to navigate without unintentionally stepping on toes. And figuring out how to phrase all of that in terms that a not-quite-four-year-old can understand is even more challenging!
The language that a lot of people use when talking about non-binary gender identity is that of a spectrum, but I’ve never been a fan of the idea of gender as a spectrum. If gender is a spectrum, that implies that all possible genders exist as points along a single two-dimensional line with “male” and “female” as the two extremes along that line – which is incredibly reductive.
So it was with all of that in mind that I decided to make this comic – which will hopefully provide a useful visual representation for understanding some of the basics of the complexity of gender identity:
Why a complex view of gender matters: personal reflections on my own gender identity
My entire childhood, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was “failing” at being a girl. I HAAAAATE dresses, I’m disinterested in makeup, and hair? Between generally not understanding how to girl and having curly hair, my hair has always been a perpetual struggle for me.
(It didn’t help that my classmates ALSO thought I didn’t know how to girl. When I was 13 I cut my hair short and my classmates called me “Pat” – after the horrifically awful SNL skit – for a year.)
In high school and college, I’d joke about “being terrible at being a girl” or (after getting married) that I was “the man in my marriage”. But by then, I’d found ways of performing femininity that felt (mostly) comfortable for me. I still don’t wear dresses (unless I’m LARPing), and I mostly avoid makeup (except for LARPing or job interviews). But I’ve learned ways of dressing that look feminine without me having to put a lot of effort into PERFORMING FEMININITY. Because even now, that shit makes me feel like an alien from another planet.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when I started learning about non-binary gender identities and getting really obsessed with gender in general that I was introduced to the term “cis-by-default”, and was like YES. THIS. Because that perfectly describes how I feel about my gender now. If I had known that being genderqueer was a thing that existed when I was a kid, or shit even in college – I would have been all over that. I would be genderqueering like nobody’s business.
But finding out that’s a thing after 30+ years of figuring out how to be feminine without performing femininity? After having a kid and not having the time or bandwidth to even care about bathing regularly, let alone experimenting with gender presentation? No way.
In talking with my husband about this the other day, I compared it to a favorite pair of sandals. You get them because you like how they look, but it turns out that they just don’t fit right – they rub your heel, or they keep slipping off, or give you blisters. But you’re stuck with them because these are the only sandals you were given. Eventually you break them in, and maybe they end up not quite the way they’re supposed to – maybe you have to cut a strap to make them fit, or maybe they look too worn to be professional once you get them to that comfy stage. Whatever. What matters is they are comfy and are your go-to footwear.
And then someone shows you a pair of strappy ultra-high stiletto heel sandals. And shit, you love them SO MUCH. You’re mad you didn’t even know that strappy ultra-high stiletto heel sandals were a thing! Except… you have your comfy sandals. The ones that maybe weren’t supposed to fit you, but they fit now. And sure the new sandals might be amazeballs, but those things come with a learning curve. You’re going to fall on your ass and embarrass yourself in public at least a few times before you get it right, and who knows, you may even break an ankle. And shit, trying to be in school, do freelance, and have a three-year-old? I need sandals I know I won’t break my neck in if I have to chase my kid all of a sudden.
…but still. I have some awesome non-binary friends, and watching them experiment with their gender presentation makes me a little sad for younger me. For the me that definitely would have made different choices if she’d known those choices existed.
It’s been two and a half weeks now since the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida. Unfortunately, while I’ve seen some good, heartfelt conversations in private channels about the tragedy from those I know in the games community, the largest game publishing companies have been largely… silent.
At E3, the only AAA game publisher to address the Pulse shooting in their press conference was Microsoft, who led their event with a moment of silence. (Bethesda’s presenters did wear rainbow armbands, and their Twitter avatar was briefly given a rainbow background – though their avatar has been changed back already.) The lack of commentary from an industry famed for its continued reliance on misogyny, toxic masculinity, and heteronormativity to drive sales was disappointing, to say the least.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any contacts to speak of in the video games industry. But I do have contacts in the tabletop industry. Like, a lot of them. So I did some research and ended up contacting all of the indie publishers I know. Here’s a portion of the message that I sent:
The Pulse Tragedy
The mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was a horrific tragedy that has already touched so many lives. But worse than the loss and trauma, there is a real fear that I have heard expressed by many of my LGBT friends about how to navigate a world that hates and fears them when even their safe spaces, their spaces of refuge, are not safe.
There are so many talented and wonderful LGBT people in game development – developers, publishers, editors, designers, writers, that have contributed so much to our hobby. Without their voices and their talent, our hobby would be infinitely poorer. Unfortunately, while there are LGBT-friendly enclaves within gaming, the hobby as a whole continues to be unwelcoming to LGBT gamers. And I think the lack of response by “leading lights” in the gaming industry might contribute to that perception of gaming as an unsafe space.
And I get it! It’s hard to know what to say or do in the face of such brutality! And it’s hard to figure out how to express support in ways that are meaningful beyond “thoughts and prayers” or in ways that center the conversation around your distress and not the real needs of the people affected.
So Here’s What I Propose
I would like to have an informal donation drive, of sorts, to have publishers come together and donate money to a charity directly doing the work of providing services to families and survivors; The GLBT Center of Central Florida is a charity that has already been providing these services – you can read about their ongoing efforts here.
And I’m pleased to be able to report that people stepped up. Because much as I devote a lot of space to the problems that the games community and industry faces, there are a lot of good and conscientious people on the publishing end of things who are trying to make a real difference.
The Outcome: $1173 Raised for the GLBT Center of Central Florida
Indie tabletop publishing is an industry with incredibly narrow profit margins – it’s tough when RPG consumers expect stunningly beautiful, art-rich, 300 page game books for rock-bottom prices. So I’m pleased to be able to say that between the ten publishers who participated, we were able to raise $1173 in contributions. Here are the publishers (in no particular order) who donated:
The contributions were made individually by each publisher, who communicated the amount of their donation to me, for the purposes of knowing the overall total only. Publishers were linked to the GoFundMe campaign as well as the direct PayPal donation link, so that contributing publishers could use whichever was more convenient or ethically preferable. (Myself, I prefer to avoid GoFundMe whenever possible, because of the company’s problematic business ethics.)
(It may be worth noting that Peach Pants Press (aka me) is one of the listed contributors. I don’t believe in asking people to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.)
I’m grateful for the contributions made by my publishing peers and hope that this can be at least a small step from one corner of the games publishing industry to indicate that we care about LGBT people, and want to continue doing what we can to make safer spaces within the gaming community. All too often, silence can feel like a lack of support and caring. This small gesture can’t possibly erase all of the awfulness that happens within our community, but hopefully we can signal that there are lots of people who make games who want to do what we can to continue making gaming spaces better – more safe, more inclusive, and more welcoming.
After digging through the E3 2016 announcements for Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Ubisoft, Bethesda, and EA, I’ve only been able to count six games that feature either exclusively playable female characters, the choice to play as a female character, or a segment involving playing as a female character. This is a significant drop from E3 2015, where the illustrious Sam Maggs found 23 games that featured female playable characters. Seven of those games only offered female playable characters, as Feminist Frequency pointed out. — The Six Games at E3 2016 Featuring Female Playable Characters, Jessica Lachenal
To go from 23 down to six seemed like such a puzzling drop that it got me wondering. Were there really only six games featuring playable female characters being previewed at E3?
Let’s look at some (general) numbers (remember, these are approximations):
Happily, there were actually a good deal more than that! However, in order to come by this information, I had to dig up this list from IGN of all games featured at this year’s E3, at which point I did some perfunctory Googling of each game on the list to determine (as best I could with no more than five minutes per game) numbers and genders of protagonists.
Because this list was HUGE, I decided that I would not bother counting anything that was an “open world” game – which seems to be the new term for MMOs that aren’t RPGs, racing games – which are about vehicles more than people, and fighting games – because fighting games’ issues with gender are a phenomenon unto themselves, and remasters of existing games – because that’s just cheating. (Most of the games that I eliminated were open world games, although remasters were a close second.) If you look at all games previewed, there were 27 games featuring playable female characters, as opposed to 43 games which did not have playable female characters:
Granted, the point made in the TMS piece stands – fully 5 of the 27 games were games that were announced for the first time at last year’s E3. It’s also worth noting that more than half of games with playable female characters offer those characters alongside 1 or more male characters. And a large number of those games offer only 1 woman and multiple male characters. Additionally, Battlefield 1 makes the list, since it will have one sequence with a playable female character, while the rest of the game will feature only men. However, since it contains a playable female character, that’s enough to get it to count.
So while 27 to 43 doesn’t look like that bad of a ratio when you look at the numbers, things get a lot more depressing when you look at games with only 1 protagonist. There are only 11 games with a sole female protagonist, as opposed to 33 games with sole male protagonists! Even more depressing than the gender imbalance is the fact that SO. GODDAMN. MANY. of the dude characters that are headlining these games are just MORE OF THE SAME and represent ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NOTHING NEW:
Because what gaming is more of the exact same protagonist that they have been serving us over and over and OVER for the last several decades. Please, I would like someone to tell me how I’m supposed to care about YET ANOTHER installation of The Adventures of Scowly GrizzledFace McSquareJaw and His Continuing Journeys In the Land of Heterosexual Mostly Whiteness. Because at this point, I’m pretty much at the same point with this shit as I am with Spiderman reboots. IT WAS GREAT THE FIRST TWO DOZEN TIMES BUT I’M NOT DOING IT AGAIN. I’M NOT. I DON’T CARE , YOU CAN’T MAKE ME.
Seriously, the offering of nearly identical grizzled (mostly) white guys with the same damn stories and the same damn motivations pursuing the same damn goals in the same damn environments… it’s just… BORING. BORING BORING BOOOOORING.
Contrast this with the female characters on offer. Even though there are many fewer of them, and they still skew overly white, young, and “pretty”, the variety still manages to be so much more interesting and compelling:
Here you see women who are white, black, Asian, and Middle Eastern. Old women, young girls, and in between. Soldiers and magicians, mechanics and rogues. And more than their visual dissimilarity, their goals and motivations are different. You have women trying to survive, trying to save someone they love, trying to make a new home and new way of life. Women trying to become masters of a martial art, women seeking action and adventure, and women looking to wrestle the Fates themselves.
All of which are WAY MORE INTERESTING than killing things with guns, regretting That One Woman You Couldn’t Save, having sex with women you don’t care about, and staring broodingly into the middle distance. I’ve been playing video games since I was six years old, and I’m fucking tired of seeing the same stories over and over again. As a consumer, pretty much the best way that you can guarantee that I won’t buy your product ever is to not include female protagonists.
And shit, you can still have pretty much ALL OF THAT Beardy McScowlpants crap in a game and still get me to like it if you actually have a female character worth playing. Joel from The Last of Us is one of the most stereotypical exemplars of the ScruffyBeard McFridgedDaughter trope ever, and I still wound up yelling my excitement about how goddamn good that game was over the course of several posts.
But, alas, given the continuing reluctance of AAA publishers to include playable female characters in their games, it looks like I’m going to be complaining about all the unoriginal Scowly White Dudes in AAA games for some time to come.
A few weeks ago, Mark Diaz Truman of Magpie Games approached me about doing a review of the art in the new 2nd Edition 7th Sea core book, in advance of the book’s final release. (7th Sea isn’t a Magpie product, it’s by John Wick, but it’s being project-managed by Mark and Marissa Kelly, who are 2 of the 3 owners of Magpie.) I thought this was pretty exciting, given that I had previously been a huge fan of the fantastically inclusive art direction in Urban Shadows, so I said that I would be very interested in taking him up on the offer of early access so that I could have time to work on the review.
It turns out that the 7th Sea art was simultaneously exciting and frustrating, in the same way I find BioWare games exciting and frustrating. 80% of the art in this book is so so good, and there is exciting stuff I have never seen in a game book before, period. Which is why I find the areas where the book falls short all the more frustrating! Because it’s a fantastic book, but in terms of representation of women it still falls short.
Just as I would do with any large game book, I went through and did counts of the gender distribution of figures in 7th Sea core book art. I won’t clutter this review with lots of pie charts, but all of the results that I reference in this post can be found in this Infogr.am here, if you’re curious for specific figures.
While there were a lot of things to be excited about, the gender breakdown ended up being only slightly better than D&D 5E’s player’s handbook; of all the figures counted in the 7th Sea corebook, 35% were women, 55% were men, and 10% were unknown – which is only 5% better than the 5E PHB’s 30% representation of women.
When I mentioned these initial results, it was suggested that overall representation of figures isn’t necessarily the same as representation of focal figures – a point that I don’t necessarily agree with but thought worth investigating. However, when I re-did my counts focusing only on focal figures and eliminating background figures, there was only a 2% increase in female representation – which isn’t exactly a significant difference.
That’s not to say that the 7th Sea core book is as universally poor at equitable representation as the 5E PHB or the Pathfinder books that I examined, however. When it came to single-character illustration, 7th Sea fell just shy of parity with 19 women (47.5%) to 21 men (52.5%), which means that group illustrations are where the numbers fell apart and dragged down the averages for the rest of the book; out of 43 group illustrations, 8 had only one woman out of 3 or more figures, and 7 more had no women whatsoever.
So, not absolutely terrible – not by a long shot. But given the people involved and the high quality of art directions on other projects Magpie has managed, certainly disappointing.
Now of course, numbers don’t always tell the whole story – and there are a number of things worth looking at in a bit more detail. (It’s worth noting that I don’t want to end on a negative – since my overall feelings about this book are quite positive – so don’t let the fact that the first half of this post is pretty critical mislead you into thinking that I’m saying this is a terrible book, because that’s really not the case.)
My personal pet peeve: when men are men and women are sexy
One of my absolute least favorite kinds of stupid game cheesecake artist is when you have depictions of a man and a woman shown as the same character type where then man is completely covered and the woman is dressed more revealingly. So I was rather annoyed when I spotted not one, but two instances of this irritating trope.
The first are these depictions of male and female highlanders:
I do appreciate the fact that the dress in both of these instances is historically accurate, but showing the female highlander with a sword and shield while her top hangs low enough to show off quite a lot of cleavage? Aggravating. And while the number of layers she’s wearing makes it a bit difficult to say for sure, I suspect that there’s some hip-thrusting happening for a more appealing pose – which is irritating in comparison to the male highlander who has his feet firmly planted with his weight distributed evenly between both feet. In other words, the male highlander is depicted as heroic, while the female highlander is depicted as pretty.
Still, mildly irritating is still a whole lot better than actually infuriating, as is the case with the male and female Jarls:
The female highlander is at least historically accurate, while all semblance of accuracy for the female Jarl is discarded in favor of sexy historical-ish flavor. A shield maiden should have armor that actually provides coverage of her arms and tors0, not some sexy leather tunic with a plunging v-neck that shows off her great rack. The male Jarl is heavily armed and armored, while the female Jarl is just a fashion icon.
And sure, only 2 pieces in a nearly 300 pages book is pretty impressive, given the overall art density. And while the Jarless earns a whole lot of side-eye, she is definitely a damn sight better than a lot of the bullshit art I lampoon on this blog.
Gender imbalance in group images: either you’re good enough to be a hero or villain, or you’re invisible
It’s not enough to simply say that the group illustrations are where things fall apart, because they’re the ones dragging down the overall average, because that would convey the notion that the group images are universally terrible – and they’re really not.
There are a large number of two-character images, and the great majority of two-character images depict men and women together in equally strong and interesting roles. There are far too many to pick out, but here are some of my favorite examples:
When it comes to the duo shots, women are depicted as strong, interesting, and in a variety of roles – from magic-wielding warrior, to powerful noble, to alchemist, to daring swashbuckler. And there’s a lot to love! I love how the upward perspective on the female warrior in the first image is purely for heroic emphasis and not to emphasize her [ahem] feminine attributes, which is a gratingly common trope in fantasy art. I also love how angry the female noble looks as she steps on the back of the dead man at her feet, or how it looks like the female alchemist is the one running the show and the man is just her lab assistant. And the dueling swashbuckler? Epic.
Which is why it’s so disappointing that when the focus widens to larger depictions of the world, society, or a larger group of individuals, that things fall apart in a pretty bad way. 16% of the group images in the book don’t have any women at all, such as this illustration here:
Admittedly, 5 of the 8 figures have no gender, but the three focal figures in this image are all gendered as male – which is disappointing given that the text says that women can do just about anything within the world of Theah.
Even so, that image isn’t nearly so egregious as this image, which comes from the section describing the Samartian parliament as being tremendously egalitarian, because Samartian citizen – regardless of background – may participate in the parliamentary process:
I see an awful lot of skin tones on display, but there are TWELVE MEN, and only one woman – who isn’t by any means focal. This lack of imagination on the part of the artist is as depressing as it is predictable. When told to depict a government, they drew mostly men with a token woman. Granted, that’s slightly better than the percent of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (4.4%), but not much! In a book that depicts tales of swashbuckling, heroism, magic, and adventure, I’d hope that it wouldn’t be too much to imagine that women might actually participate in public service.
Now that image has the most skewed gender ratio of any image in the book, but nearly every other image in the book that depicted 3 or more characters had more men than women – and usually by a large margin. (There were a few notable exceptions, like the image with five female witches, but those were more the exception that proved the rule.) 1 woman to 4 men seemed to be one of the most common gender ratios in group images, such as:
One villainess, four focal male figures. And sure they’re all cowering from her, and she’s center focus, but that doesn’t change the fact that there aren’t any other visibly female figures in what looks to be a pretty crowded public space.
It happens with images of heroes too:
Again, one woman – this time a hero – and 4 men. I do appreciate that in this instance, the woman looks heroic and capable, but the fact that in all of the 7th Sea core books henchpeople are depicted as nearly universally male is disappointing. In either good or evil, it seems that in Theah if you are spectacularly exceptional, you can aspire to be a true hero or a true villain – but if you are female and ordinary, well best keep you out of sight.
You even see this on the cover of the book:
And man that’s frustrating – because this cover is awesome. I absolutely love how fucking badass the female hero on the cover looks – the pose and cocky expression are just fantastic. Morever, she’s centrally placed, not just shoved off to one side – which is a thing that you see on an awful lot of fantasy RPG covers with similar ratios of gender representation. This is a great cover! It would just be nice if it had more than one woman.
Things that fucking rock
I’ve gone on at some length already about the things that frustrate me about this book – but there really is a lot in this book that I’m quite happy about! Like the copious quantities of completely awesome female characters:
You don’t even know how hard it was restricting myself to just a few favorites. There are so many examples of strong, active, and awesome women of all types – women that get to interact dynamically with their environment. Each of these women is a character that I would absolutely love to play – and in general the depiction of women as consistently appealing avatar characters in this book is fantastic. For all that I’ve devoted a lot of space to complaining about “where are the women??” – the standard of depiction for women who do appear in the book is one that a lot of other mainstream RPGs would have difficulty living up to.
However, how the 7th Sea core book really sets a new high-water mark is in its depiction of gay relationships between heroic characters:
It’s possible that I may have seen lesbians that weren’t outrageously pornified in a trad RPG text, although if I have I can’t remember it. But I know that I have never seen a gay kiss in a mainstream RPG – so even by that standard this art is groundbreaking. But better than that, these depictions are genuinely fantastic depictions of gay romance. Both sets of characters are appealing avatar characters and not Evil Gays! And in both images, the romance is shown as tender and genuine and real – which knocks my goddamn socks off.
Obviously, 7th Sea is a game property with an enormous amount of reach and popularity. Given that it raised 1.3million on Kickstarter, an awful lot of publishers are going to be looking to learn lessons from the 7th Sea phenomenon. So despite my disappointment that I feel like the new core book didn’t live up to its potential with its representation of women, overall I feel pretty encouraged that this represents a large step in the right direction when it comes to overall inclusiveness of art direction in a mainstream RPG product – given the influence that this product will have over future mainstream RPG products. And it’s definitely my hope that Magpie can continue to improve upon what they’ve already done. There’s still an awful lot of 7th Sea content in production, and hopefully they’ll take all of this into consideration and work on finding ways to do even better.
[Edit 2: See end of post for update as of June 29, 2016]
Some of the response to my last post has been supportive, which is nice. But unfortunately, a large quantity has been full of straw-manning, ad hominems, and abusive language. Like the person who commented simply, “Idiot.”. Or the person who told me that I should kill myself with cyanide in a comment that managed to combine homophobia, racism, misogyny, ableism, and fatphobia in only four sentences. Impressive.
The remainder of unhelpful responses can be broken down into two camps: 1) I shouldn’t be writing about Orlando because I’m not queer and 2) I’m trivializing the Orlando shooting by trying to talk about games.
In response to the first, I happen to believe that it’s important for non-queer folks to educate other non-queer folks. My unfortunate experience with trying to talk about sexism and misogyny has been that some men will ONLY listen to other men. Some people with privilege will ONLY listen to people with the same privilege. In writing this post, I was conscious about not duplicating things already being said by queer voices, and in my other social media channels I have only been retweeting/posting/sharing things said by others.
I’m not saying that I ally perfectly, because lord knows that I don’t. But I reject the assertion that only people who experience a given marginalization can speak to that marginalization, because in order for change to happen you need people of privilege to stand up to other people of privilege. So, if after trying to strike a balance between boosting the words of queer people and shouting some sense into non-queer people you still don’t think that I have a right to speak, period, because my identity, then I can’t help you because that is something I’m never going to back down from.
In response to the second, this entire blog is written out of a belief that POP CULTURE IS CULTURE and YOU CAN’T SEPARATE THE TWO. If you disagree with that fundamental premise, you disagree with the entire premise of feminist media criticism. I’m not going to spend time and effort on having this argument yet again, on defending the purpose of holding a critical lens to entertainment media to examine what it says about us as pop culture creators and consumers. Because you will never convince me that pop culture criticism is a waste of time, or is “trivializing” other issues, simply because the medium I happen to focus on is games.
All of that said, I’m closing comments on the previous post, and if things get out of hand here I’m going to lock down comments on the entire blog for a while. Doubtless people are going to want to keep shaming me, but I’m not obligated to provide them a space to do it in.
It’s worth noting that throughout ALL of this I HAVE been listening to queer voices and asking for advice in how to proceed, and those voices have been saying a lot of mixed things. There’s a lot of division over this right now and it’s really hard to know how to proceed. In the end, I decided not to delete the post, because I have a policy of not deleting posts. Partly this is for transparency and accountability, although there are MANY other reasons which I won’t go into right now.
Update: June 29, 2016
After continuing to have conversations about this matter, I decided to organize a donation drive to raise money for the GLBT Center of Central Florida – a charity that is providing services directly to Pulse families and survivors. You can read more information about the results of this here.
It’s also worth noting that while I continue to stand by what I wrote and how it was published, what I am not proud of was my response to some of the criticism that was levied. There were some people who were very open and genuine in sharing their pain and distress over what happened, and I responded to them in ways that weren’t acceptable.
I was in a really terrible place and was having to stay on top of deleting lots of horrible shit full of racism, homophobia, and misogyny and had been marinating in that for a few days when I saw these comments, which made it difficult for me separate people from trying to share their pain in a genuine way from people trying to shame me for what I wrote because of my perceived identity. Instead of stepping away to get some space and perspective, I responded from a place of pain, anger, and trauma, and that wasn’t okay. As such, I have taken steps to contact the people involved and make direct apologies.