INTRODUCTION

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.

Female protagonists in E3 trailers! AAA devs remember that women exist! [LONG]

Another E3 has come and gone! And it seems that, after the debacle of last year’s E3, that developers are making a bit more of an effort to not fail at easily-preventable sexism. While still nowhere near parity, there were at least more female presenters than severed heads, unlike last year. Similarly, all of the studios managed not to say anything as colossally bone-headed as Ubisoft talking about why female characters couldn’t be included in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

Progress?

Perhaps more encouraging is the fact that last year, the game trailers that were featured starred characters that were almost entirely white and male. However, this year there were more games featuring prominent female characters! So much so that The Mary Sue did this roundup of E3 game trailers for “23 games from E3 with badass playable female characters“.

Sounds great, right? From almost no games with female protagonists to 23 in one year? What an amazing shift! Unfortunately, what I discovered when I started going through the list is that TMS’ optimism on this front is perhaps a bit… overblown. While it’s true that there are a good number of promising-looking games featuring some pretty nifty-looking female characters, there are also lots of actually-not-super-awesome games in that mix as well.

So while I normally don’t like to do detailed takedowns of pieces featured on other blogs, I thought it would be useful to go through the list of games as compiled by TMS and why the picture isn’t, perhaps, quite as rosy as they paint it. (Although there still are things that are justifiably worth being excited over.) Since genre and game type make it a bit difficult to compare things evenly, I’ve broken this list into a few categories just to make my life easier.

MOBAs that have female characters

There were four games featured at E3 with rosters of set characters that the player chooses from, and three of the four are MOBAs. (It seems League of Legends clones are the new hotness bandwagon that game studios are all trying to jump on?) And not a one of these four games features an evenly split character roster.

The worst of the lot is Battleborn, which is being developed by the creators of Borderlands. Admittedly, the website says that there will be a roster of 25 characters, and so far only ten have been revealed. However, out of those ten characters, only 3 are women:

battleborn

Even worse, the three female characters are all waifishly thin with impossible (no room for internal organs, over-inflated sphere-boobs) figures. And while the male characters are all over the place in type from “ruggedly handsome” to “huge and burly” to “sentient mushroom”, the weirdest any of the women get is a button-ish eye-patch with a funky coat and hat. (Yet another example of the interesting/pretty gender binary, sadly.) I’d also be willing to wager that not a one of the as-yet-to-be-revealed female characters looks either old, ugly, or at all monstrous.

Overwatch manages to do a bit better; 6 out of its 14 characters are female. Unfortunately, as I’ve written about previously, its character designs are also… so. Very. Regressive – which is pretty sad, since Blizzard went into this project with declarations that they wanted to “do women better”.

Now, it is true that since writing my old post about Overwatch, Zarya has been added to the roster. And I’ll admit, that helps, because seriously look at her:

paxeast2015_0014_zarya-overview

Very bicep. So muscle. Amaze!

Unfortunately, one awesome character doesn’t make up for the fact that women still aren’t evenly represented, and the other female characters designs still suck.

Out of the MOBAs previewed at E3, Gigantic is definitely the best, even if it falls just short of gender parity in its character roster (7 of 16 characters are female):

g-griselma

While it’s true that there is definitely some sigh-inducing character design with Tripp and Vadasi (seriously, they look like they’d blow away in a stiff breeze), there are things to be happy about. Griselma is a tiny old woman, which gives her automatic awesome points. (Because old women make anything cooler, especially if they’re grandmothers.) Imani is also a great example of a tough-but-stylish bruiser – and a WoC to boot? Fantastic! Lastly, Mozo is actually a monstrous non-human that is still gendered as female, which is surprising and excellent! She’s still a little on the “adorable” side, but it’s super encouraging to see her and Xenobia look actually monstrous – even if Xenobia is more sexy-monstrous than monstrous-monstrous.

Lastly, I’m lumping in Fable Legends with this category, even though its only multiplayer is an up-to-4-player cooperative mode – simply because it also has a roster of preselected characters that you choose to play as.

Fable Legends comes close, again, to gender parity, with 5 of 11 characters being female. Unfortunately, it also has terrible character designs. Only one of the five women isn’t blatantly objectified, and surprisingly she’s a mage:

fl-celeste

Glory’s costume is actually pretty great! Mage-y without being impractical or sexualizing, it’s a pretty excellent example of decent character design! However, Glory is also the only character who gets to wear pants, and all of the other character designs are ridiculous, implausible, or straight-up problematic.

Take Inga, who is wearing ridiculously bulky plate mail, wields a crazily large tower shield, and yet for some reason has decided – you know what, who needs pants? AMIRITE? Because how would we know that Inga is a woman without some sort of blatant objectification? Then of course, you have Evienne who fights with an improbably large sword, despite the fact that she would die in about 3 seconds flat after tripping over her dress or getting her sword tied up in those stupidly trailing sleeves. Winter is yet another example of a cold-based character who isn’t properly dressed for her element (why only one pant leg?). And Celeste is… well let’s just say that Celeste’s design seems uncomfortably “tribal” to me, given that she’s also the only WoC on the roster.

So while Gigantic comes the closest to having a cast of characters that you can be happy about, most of these games are just “more of the same” as far as trends in MOBA design are concerned. A slight uptick in female representation doesn’t change the fact that female characters are still outnumbered and disproportionately objectified.

Generic customizable characters with no effect on gameplay

Three of the 23 games in TMS’ preview are games where playable characters are simple avatars with no real effect on a supposed plot or gameplay – Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Tom Clancy’s The Division, and Battlecry.

Battlecry is a shooter-MMO centered around squad-on-squad combat, so it’s no surprise that it would include playable female characters as avatar options. However, as far as I can tell, this is the first time in either the Call of Duty or the Tom Clancy franchise that playable female characters will be an option in the single-player campaign. Which, you know, progress? I suppose it’s nice that in 2015, women are finally allowed to get female pixels all up in their AAA murder simulators. But aside from the obvious question of WHY WASN’T THAT AN OPTION ALREADY?, this doesn’t really represent anything terribly new or interesting for AAA games, gender-wise.

Although I will admit that, if one screenshot is an accurate reflection, I do really like the female character design for The Division:

the-division

So there’s that at least.

Story-based, can select either a male or female character

The next category is, thankfully, much more encouraging – even if it’s not universally promising. Six of the 23 games in the TMS preview piece are various flavor of RPGish game ranging from action-stealth to action-shooter to just straight up action-fantasy. These are all games where you have a choice between playing a male or a female character – Mass Effect: Andromeda, Fallout 4, Ashen, Dishonored 2, Nier 2, and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.

(It is worth pointing out that Mass Effect and Fallout do technically have generic customizeable characters, and as such it could be argued that they should be lumped in with the previous category. However, story in games like Call of Duty exists only to get you from one map to the next in the single-player campaign mode, whereas story in a Mass Effect or Fallout game is one of the primary motivations for playing the game in the first place. So since character choice in these games matters beyond “what does my murder hobo look like”, it feels more appropriate to lump them in with the single-player story-based games.)

The shape of the choice between male and female characters varies slightly by game. Both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Fallout 4 will force you to choose up front, either you will play a male protagonist or a female protagonist. As with previous entrants in their respective series, the differences in character appearance are mostly insignificant. (Although it should be noted that the promo art for ME: Andromeda features male and female versions of a soldier character where the woman is standing in a Blatant Sexy Pose. Uncool, BioWare. UNCOOL.)

Ashen and Dishonored 2 are a bit less clear cut. There are options for both male and female characters, but it’s not clear (at least from what I’ve been able to find) if you can switch back and forth or if you are locked in once you’ve made your choice. In Ashen, the character choice seems less meaningful because the characters are literally generic – they’re rendered without faces and only minimal differentiation by gender. However, Dishonored 2 will actually give you the choice of either playing as the previous games male protagonist, Corvo, or as the girl that he rescued in that game – Emily – as the two of you seek to get her throne back. Which, honestly, with a choice like that, why would anyone choose the boring male protagonist over the dethroned heir?

Last are Nier 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – which both appear to be games that will let you switch between male and female characters. Both games offer cause for optimism – Nier 2 looks to be a lush JRPG by Squeenix, who has a history of doing well by their female characters. And Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate actually stars two assassins – twins Jacob and Evie Frye who have very different styles, and who approach their missions very differently.

However, it’s hard for me to hold out great hopes for either games. While it’s great that Assassin’s Creed for the PC is finally going to have a female protagonist, it’s still being published by Ubisoft – so hopefully those elusive ladypixels don’t prove too intractable. As for Nier 2, it’s apparently being developed by the team behind Bayonetta, which… uh. Yeah. They’re the folks that thought that this was an empowering female character:

[headdesk]

Explicitly Female-Lead single-character titles

So out of the 23 games in the TMS preview piece, that leaves a total of ten games that are explicitly female-lead: FIFA 16, Adr1ft, Tacoma, Rise of the Tomb Raider, ReCore, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Walking Dead Michonne, Horizon Zero Dawn, Hellblade, and Beyond Eyes.

female-lead

TOP, LEFT TO RIGHT: Rise of the Tomb Raider, ReCore, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Walking Dead Michonne BOTTOM, LEFT TO RIGHT: Horizon Zero Dawn, Hellblade, Beyond Eyes

(I was unable to find screenshots of the protagonists for Tacoma or Adr1ft, and it seemed a bit weird to include FIFA 16.)

And granted, that’s a pretty good selection! It seems like in the past, the titles previewed by AAA developers almost all starred white, square-jawed, grimdark antiheroes and if we were lucky there might be a female-led game that looked worth playing. Maybe. So this represents a pretty big departure from the All Dudez All the Time school of game development.

The core conceits of all of these games are pretty diverse as well. From Beyond Eyes – which is centered around a blind little girl looking for her missing cat, to Adr1ft – which has you playing a female astronaut trying to survive the explosion of a space station, to Horizon Zero Dawn – which has a post-apocalyptic wildling fighting robo-dinosaurs with a bow and arrow. (Which sounds awesome.)

There is, of course, still room for improvement, as always. The protagonists of these games do skew heavily white (though I’ll note that the protagonist of Adr1ft – Alex Oshima – is rumored to be a WoC, even if I couldn’t find a screenshot of her). And as noted at the beginning of my post, it would be great to see AAA developers catch on to the notion that there are more than two options when selecting a protagonist’s gender. But I’m sure that there are people who feel that these are relatively minor complaints in the face of what appears to be real change in AAA development trends.

Still, while I do find many of these games compelling and encouraging, I’m also holding on to a lot of skepticism. The previous Tomb Raider, the first in the newer-grittier-realistic-Lara-Croft series, was disappointing in how far it went to brutalize a previously-strong female character for the sake of making her “vulnerable”. (A cliche that I’m honestly pretty sick of. What is it about a strong female character that makes developers want to brutalize her to take away that strength? Why can’t we just let a strong female character BE STRONG and leave it at that?) So I’m hoping that the previous game will have reestablished Lara’s “strong female character” cred and the developers will dial back on the brutality this time around.

Mirror’s Edge is also a source of some concern, seeing as how the new game is a prequel to the first two – I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the devs on that team are looking to the previous Tomb Raider game as a cautionary tale and that they won’t be tempted to craft a horrifically brutal origin story for Faith.

And maybe I’m being too grumpy about all of this. Is there a lot here to be hopeful about? Absolutely! But it’s also true that there is a lot here in these previews that represents “more of the same”, and I’m not all that inclined to celebrate game developers who expect us to be excited about character rosters that under represent and oversexualize women.

Monday Freebies: the “sorry for being so quiet” edition

Hello, friends!

I do very much apologize for the recent silence. Thankfully, I can say that the real-life nonsense that was occupying all of my spare bandwidth has been mostly resolved, and I intend to get right back into the swing of things, blogging-wise. However, since my writing muscles have definitely atrophied in the almost-month that I did not write anything whatsoever, I figured I’d ease back into blogging with a links post.

I know, I shouldn’t have. I’m too kind.

Some of these links are a bit old, since I’ve been collecting them for the last few weeks. Hopefully you’ll still find some things of value worth reading.

Things that suck [1]

I’ll admit to not following Jared Axelrod’s fiction podcast The Voice of Free Planet X. However, this particular episode is a non-fiction interlude in which Jared very clearly and concisely spells out “what we talk about when we talk about con harassment“. I particularly enjoyed how Jared takes pains to address the commonly raised point that convention harassment policies penalize socially awkward men who don’t know how to talk to women without being awkward by stressing that, in fact, convention harassment policies are actually targeted at predators – who are almost always frighteningly socially adept. It’s well worth a listen.

Recently, some student’s at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center were given an assignment to create a video game that dealt with sexual assault prevention… that didn’t also suck. The resulting game – Decisions That Matter – looks like a very interesting game that manages to be hard-hitting without resorting to the usual victim-blamey “strategies” for sexual assault prevention like not walking alone at night or not dressing a certain way… You can read an interview with the games creators here, and the game itself can be played here (though content warnings for harassment and assault, so please take care if you do check it out).

The next time you encounter someone who complains that women just aren’t straightforward enough and why can’t they just say what they think (yes this is an actual thing that I have heard actual people actually complain about), you can link them to this piece about the arrest of a 17-year-old Canadian kid from BC who made a habit of SWATting women who turned down his romantic advances. Because nothing says love and devotion like causing someone’s home to be invaded by SWAT at the potential cost of life and/or limb. But sure, it’s women who have the problem here. Right.

This piece on The Mary Sue is from last month, written by Brianna Wu about the chilling number of credible threats that have been made against her, threats of which she has prosecutor evidence, and yet no charges have been laid. Which just goes to show once again why demanding that women take evidence of their online harassment to law enforcement is such an unhelpful response. It’s just yet another obstacle that is being set up that women have to clear in order to be taken seriously.

Over on Offworld, Leigh Alexander wrote this heart-rending piece about what it’s like to be a “woman in games”. I really can’t do it justice, so please just go read the whole thing.

This excellent piece by Whitney Phillips argues that we should call trolling what it really is: harassment that is centered around enforcing white male supremacy. It’s a great read.

Polygon can be pretty hit or miss, but this piece by Tauriq Moosa about gaming’s issues with racism as illustrated by Rust and Witcher 3 is very solid, if depressing.

Related: #Gamesowhite was created as an attempt to talk about gaming’s problem with race, and went about as well as you’d expect. (Not well.) Leigh Alexander chronicles some of the response over on Offworld here.

Things that are awesome

If you are a children of the 90s, you are going to absolutely love this Tumblr: Feminist Lisa Frank.

The ever-fantastic Misha B recently did an interview about roleplaying as a parent, and the difficulty in balancing gaming as a hobby with the time-intensive responsibilities of being a parent. I certainly found that a lot of this rang true for me.

I’m sorry I didn’t have more positive things to share with you, so make up for my failings, please have this corgi in a mailbox:

corgi-mailbox

 

[1] I apologize that this section is so much longer.

Recent radio silence: on hiatus for one more week

Hello, friends.

The last few weeks I’ve been dealing with a pretty horrific collection of circumstances that have been sapping my bandwidth. Most of the stress has been coming from the day job, which I will be done with and out of as of next Friday.

I hope to be able to jump back on the horse right away and get back to blogging – there are several topics I’ve had in the back of my mind. It may take me a little bit to get back into the swing of things, but I just wanted to pop in and say that I’m not dead and I’m not turning my back on the blog. I just haven’t had the energy for anything creative, much less writing.

Smite: sexist, racist, and culturally appropriating [LONG]

[ETA: I’ve revised my comments with regards to the Greek deities and whiteness, which weren’t clear enough, but you should also read the comments.]

I try not to pay attention to MMOs anymore, because the vast majority of them are steaming dung piles of bullshit sexism. However, Smite is a game that kept coming up on my radar for various reasons. When it first came out, my brother emailed me a few pieces of promo art of the female characters. More recently, a few friends over on G+ that have been talking about playing Smite. So when Smite made a few headlines last week for its decision to include Hindu gods as playable characters, I figured that it would be worth taking a closer look since that was the third time in a relatively short period of time that it caught my attention.

As it turns out, I wound up having a lot of stuff to say. So let’s just jump right on in!

Getting ready to rumble

What exactly is Smite? Smite is a MOBA – a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, a genre made popular by games like Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA2) and League of Legends. Smite, like other MOBAs, has a pre-set roster of characters that you can choose to play as that have set abilities. If you wish, you can pay extra to unlock special characters or alternate skins. And Smite has a lot of playable characters – sixty-six in total.

Those of you who have been reading my blog long enough to be familiar with my numbers posts will know that I generally tend to stick to the same set of criteria when evaluating character designs in video games; typically I will compare the numbers of figures that are shown with: 1) active poses versus neutral poses and 2) fully clothed versus suggestively attired by gender in order to demonstrate the consistent under-representation, objectification, and sexualization of female characters.

However, this time around going to all that effort really felt like a tremendous waste of time. Such an approach might be worthwhile when I’m writing about Magic and how, despite recent improvements in art direction, their art is still very sexist. But when I’m looking at a game like Smite, which is just as blatant in it’s bullshit sexism as League of Legends, it just feels like a giant fucking waste of time.

I mean, look. This is Aphrodite:

aphrodite

Ridiculous, right? Even more so when you consider that she’s not even the least clothed Smite character. So let’s just take it as a given that the female character designs are definitely objectifying and sexist and not waste time beating a dead horse[1]. Especially as there were a lot of characters to look at and other issues of representation that I wanted write about regarding problematic racist tropes.

Criteria examined and overall summary

[Note: When looking at characters, I looked at the default designs and descriptions as shown on Gamepedia’s Smite Wiki. If I get anything wrong here, I blame Gamepedia.]

In the end, the criteria I decided to examine were:

Number of figures by gender: simply the number of female figures and the number of male figures

Whether a character was whitewashed: I considered a character to be whitewashed if they came from a nonwhite culture but were explicitly depicted as white. I did not count a character as whitewashed if they were an animal or other nonhuman, had animal features, or had nonhuman skin tones (there are several characters that are either blue or purple). While some of them seemed like edge cases that could count as whitewashing, for the most part it seemed too ambiguous to make a definite argument one way or another.

Deity alignment: This was taken from the character descriptions on the wiki rather than the artwork; each character had a blurb a few paragraphs long about their backstory. I read each and assigned each deity as either Good, Neutral, or Evil. (A lot of the Greek gods wound up as Neutral, just because they capricious assholes even if they are gods of nominally good things.)

Character Damage Type: Again, as defined on the Smite wiki, I was curious to see if there would be an imbalance of Ranged characters versus Melee characters, since that’s a pretty common area of imbalance in many other video games.

After going through all 66 characters and taking tally, here’s what I came up with:

overall

In some ways, the numbers were a bit surprising even while they were also completely predictable. Female characters account for 30% of all playable characters. However, while they were clearly more sexualized and objectified, they weren’t any more likely to be whitewashed or to be pigeon-holed as a ranged character. There is an interesting difference when it comes to alignment, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Bullshit sexism

As previously stated, I don’t intend to waste words proving that Smite’s character designs are sexist and bullshit, because they just are. Many of the female promo art pieces feature broken spines, anti-gravity sphere boobs, and painted on clothing. Almost none of the female characters have clothes that would actually function to preserve modesty in any meaningful way in the real world. So regarding the female character design, I’m just going to issue a blanket: THEY’RE BULLSHIT and move on with my life.

Instead, let’s talk about how Smite is another perfect example of the interesting/pretty binary, which I’ve talked about before:

Notice how the male human gets to have actual facial expressions that convey emotions? While the female character renders all have the same vapid expression but with different hairstyles. Because men get to DO THINGS and EXPRESS THEMSELVES but women get to BE PRETTY.

When looking at the different character types, there is such a huge variety when it comes to male characters! Male deities can be humans, humanoids, demi-humans, robots, giant flying serpents, or even giant-ass rock-creatures. Whereas the female deities? Well they get boobs. And sometimes funny hats.

Case in point, look at what happens when you compare male animal and demi-human deities with female animal and demi-human deities:

animal dudes Animal ladies

(TOP LEFT: Anhur, TOP MIDDLE: Anubis, TOP RIGHT: Fenrir, BOTTOM LEFT: Arachne, BOTTOM MIDDLE: Medusa, BOTTOM RIGHT: Bastet)

The male deities are all very appealing avatar images. They give a strong sense of the culture that they come from, while also appearing strong and heroic. Whereas the female deities? The most important part of their designs are their tits, and making sure that they are clearly visible to the viewer. Giant spider thing? TITS. Man-eating snake thing? ‘DEM BOOBS THO. It really goes a long way toward illustrating[2] the priorities of the design team.

Now the interesting thing about Smite is that is that it also manages to throw in some “benevolent” sexism along with all of the bullshit objectification. Remember how I said there was a weird gender imbalance when it came to deity alignment? Well it turns out that out of 19 evil deities, only one is female:

female alignment

male alignment

Now, you may be saying to yourself – but wundergeek, I don’t get it. What’s the problem? The problem is that the stereotype of women are more wholesome and more nurturing is benevolent sexism, which is still sexism. It’s like the boss I had once who told me he only hired women to work in the office because we were more nurturing and community-minded. I found his comment terribly offensive, but didn’t say anything because I happened to desperately need the job at the time.

However, even if it is a stereotype I will admit that this actually ran counter to what I expected. Given that the female characters in Smite were so grossly oversexualized, I had expected the evil deities to skew female – you know, because sexy women are always evil. Since, you know, [mumblemumble]femme fatale[mumblereasons].

So at least if the female characters are horribly stereotyped, at least we have a mix of regressive stereotypes. Yay diversity!

Racist whitewashing

Something that’s honestly more important than the frankly not-all-that-exceptional-for-video-games level of sexism in Smite is the fact that there is an UNBELIEVABLE LEVEL OF WHITEWASHING. Literally EVERY PANTHEON except the Norse deities is whitewashed, with the worst example being the Greek pantheon – who are shown almost universally as blondes or gingers:

greek-whitewashed

(LEFT: Aphrodite, MIDDLE LEFT: Scylla, MIDDLE RIGHT: Apollo, RIGHT: Athena)

[sigh] Uh, video game industry dudes? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but Greeks are NOT ACTUALLY WHITE ACTUALLY PRETTY BROWN. Take for example, Tonia Sotiropoulou – who played the Bond Girl[3] in Skyfall. I realize this is an embarrassingly common trope in video games (I’m looking at you Soul Calibur!) but this is pretty fucking awful.

However, EVEN WORSE than the Greek deities are the Chinese deities:

Chinese whitewashed

LEFT: Chang’e, MIDDLE LEFT: He Bo, MIDDLE RIGHT: Hou Yi, RIGHT: Ne Zha

WHY DO NONE OF THEM LOOK ASIAN? Seriously, the only one who maybe looks even sorta-kinda Asian is Chang’e, and even then she still looks Katy Perry doing her best Asian drag. All of them have round eyes and decidedly European features.

And I already know what some people might be saying; OMG it’s just the style, the art is anime-influenced, the art is heavily stylized, blah blah blah. So let’s take a second and zoom in on two of the character portraits for these supposedly Chinese deities, shall we?

HouYi-NeZha

LEFT: Hou Yi, RIGHT: Ne Zha

Looking closely at the faces, you can see that it’s not just the eyes – although those are a big part of why they look decidedly un-Chinese. Their eyes are round, with visible lids, and are un-slanted. But more than that, the features and facial structure overall conveys the impression of whiteness. And given that I see this mistake repeated again and again across all of the character designs, I have to think that this mistake is more than just accidental.

The Chinese deities do not look Chinese. The Greek deities do not look Greek. The Hindu deities do not look South Asian. It’s obvious that effort was put into ensuring that the costume design would be recognizably adherent to the culture that was being referenced, but when it came to the actual faces of the gods being portrayed? The artist doing the designs obviously didn’t bother looking up references for non-white faces, because EVERY. SINGLE. DEITY. has white features. ALL of the deities that are even slightly human have indisputably white features, which is frankly, inexcusable.

About the only positive thing that can be said with regard to Smite’s frankly terribly racist character designs is that, contrary to my first impression, heroic gods weren’t more likely to be whitewashed than evil ones. So. yay? At least we’re engaging in equal opportunity racism and whitewashing here.

Culturally Appropriating

And here we come to the bit that inspired me to write about Smite in the first place. Apparently the publishers of Smite have decided to add Hindu deities as a faction – a decision which breaks with their use of only dead religions for all of their other factions. (ETA: It’s been pointed out to me that Norse paganism is not actually a dead religion, even if it is widely perceived to be. I apologize.) Unsurprisingly, given that Hinduism is a religion that is alive and well in the world today, there was pushback against this decision, arguing that if Hinduism was fair game that figures from other modern religion – like Jesus or Moses should be permissible.

However, Smite’s publishers would like us all to know that they are definitely not going to use Christian, Jewish, or Islamic figures in their game. But don’t worry – Hindu deities are still a-okay!

250px-T_Ram_Default_Card

Rama – one of the chief avatars of Vishnu

…which is, frankly, pretty bullshit. Especially when you look at the list of Hindu deities that are included, like Rama – one of the chief avatars of Vishnu and one of the most widely venerated figures in Hinduism today. And Hinduism is not a small religion! With approximately 1 billion adherents, Hindus account for approximately 1 in 7 humans on the planet – which makes the decision of Smite developers to use religious figures of central importance to a large and vibrant modern religion all the more shocking.

Because it’s obvious that when faced with the question of “where to draw the line” that the developers of Smite were clear on the fact that they weren’t willing to do anything that might offend any adherents of the Abrahamic traditions, many of whom are white or can pass for white[4]. But Hinduism? Well Hinduism is for INDIANS who are just so, you know, EXOTIC.

…which is just more creepy, culturally appropriating bullshit.

But really, given how generally awful Smite is, I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising.

[1] Fair warning. Any comments attempting to argue that Smite’s character designs aren’t sexist are going to be straight-up trashed. I don’t have time for bullshit of that magnitude.

[2] See what I did there?

[3] I have a whole ‘nother rant about Bond Girls and how fucking sexist they are, and how it’s particularly awful that in Skyfall the Bond Girl literally has sex with Bond and then has maybe 3 or 4 more lines of dialogue before dying.

[4] I realize that I am arguing something problematic here. There is a perception that Christianity is equated with whiteness, despite the fact that there are large and vibrant faith communities in South America and Africa and other areas of the world that are decidedly nonwhite. And given the overlap of traditions between the Abrahamic faiths, there tends to be a certain level of automatic goodwill extended to Judaism and Islam. However, I recognize the racial diversity of the communities that practice these faiths and certainly am not arguing that they are worth protecting because of their whiteness or proximity to whiteness.

 

Feminist-leaning dudes: let’s have “the talk”

In the last few months, I’ve found myself having several variations on what I think of as “the talk” with male friends and/or acquaintances. These guys have been people who have discovered that they have explicitly feminist leanings in the not-very-distant-past, who want to do more but are not really sure what to do with the generalized guilt that comes with feeling complicit for the failings of their gender. Since I kept repeating myself, I thought it would be worth writing about here.

So – dudes and dude-identified people! If the first paragraph sounds like you, then pull up a chair because it’s time to have “the talk”. (I promise it won’t be as bad as the actual “talk”.)

First: the pep talk that isn’t

You are going to fuck up. Accept that as a fact of reality. Gravity is a constant, the sun rises in the East, Taylor Swift’s music is pretty good despite that people like to make fun of it, and you are going to fuck up. Period. It is as inevitable as climate change or Fox News anchors being racist. You are going to fuck up. That may seem, on it’s face, a bleak statement to make. However, I give this knowledge to you as a gift to liberate you from fear.

As privileged people, we know that we shouldn’t engage in racist/misogynist/whatever-ist behavior. And fundamentally, everyone wants to believe that they are one of the good guys – that they are a decent human beings despite their faults! And as a privileged person who is starting to learn about feminism and social justice, sometimes that fear of fucking up can be paralyzing. Because you want to not to be like the other privileged asshats out there! You want to be better than that!

The problem with that way of thinking, however, is that taken to extremes, that fear can cause you to prioritize your fear of not wanting to be seem as [whatever]-ist over the feelings of real actual people suffering that real actual -ism. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s never pretty when it does. Because inevitably, it goes something like this:

Privileged person: [fucks up]

Marginalized person: Dude, you just fucked up.

Privileged person: How dare you! I would never fuck up! I’m a GOOD person, not some terrible, awful fuckup! You’re just a bully! A big stupid bully!

Marginalized person: [headdesk]

So instead of being “That Ally”, accept the inevitability of fucking up.

It does not give you permission to willfully be an asshat – you do still need to try not to fuck up; ironic sexism is still fucking sexism and it still isn’t okay. But fucking up doesn’t make you a monster, it makes you human. Accept that patriarchy has been imposed on you, just as it has been on everyone else. We are all participants in patriarchy.

Fucking up doesn’t make you uniquely horrible or monstrous – it’s simply a thing that people do every day. When it happens, acknowledge it with grace and apologize with sincerity. Then go forth and do better, always remembering that you’re not perfect. If you do really well, you’ll simply find new and different ways of fucking up.

You can choose to be depressed by all of this, but I offer it to you in the spirit of liberation – because the fear of being racist/sexist/whatever-ist and by extension a terrible person can be absolutely paralyzing, and it can take you to some deeply toxic places. So let it go, my friend. Let it go.

Next: Ally 101 – where to go from there

But, wundergeek! That’s it? That’s all I get? Just don’t fuck up, but have fun fucking up anyway?

Well. Yeah – kind of? I mean, there are a ton of resources out there on how to be an effective ally, many of which are pretty easy to find even with weak-to-moderate Google-fu. However, since I’ve also been seeing a lot of the same rookie ally mistakes that have been really getting under my skin, here are the absolute basics of the basics of the basics.

1. Learn to use Google

I appreciate that you’re probably sincere in your desire to learn more. But what you need to appreciate is that engaging with every probably-well-intentioned dude who wants me to give him a reading list to get him started down the path toward Being a Feminist (Ally) would be a colossal waste of my time.

I am not here to educate you. This blog explicitly states is not a 101-level blog and if there’s something here that you have trouble understanding, THAT’S WHAT THE REST OF THE INTERNET IS FOR.

That’s pretty much true for almost any other major feminist you can think of. We have SHIT TO DO that doesn’t include providing reading lists for any old rando who asks. So do yourself a favor and learn how to Google the answers you need. I PROMISE you they are easy to find.

2. Call men on their shit

When a man says or does something shitty in your presence, call him on it. You don’t need a lecture or a special technique or anything. Quite often, a “dude, not cool” will suffice.

Patriarchy is perpetuated by silence, so don’t be silent. As a dude, you have the automatic power of People Always Listening To You – a power most decidedly not conferred on lesser (read: non-dude) mortals[1]. With the benefits of patriarchy comes an obligation to use your power for good.

3. -ist jokes: JUST SAY NO

DO NOT make -ist jokes. Challenge people who make -ist jokes (when you can) in your presence. If you are not able to do so, say, because you work in customer service and this behavior is coming from a customer – refuse to laugh at -ist jokes.

Humans are social animals. The temptation to laugh politely so as to not make a scene will be there. Resist. Because “not making a scene” tells the -ist asshole YOU ARE ON THEIR SIDE

4. Don’t make light of or attempt to find the bright side of abuse

If you know someone who is experiencing sexist/racist/whatever-ist harassment or abuse, for the love of Christ don’t diminish it or try to make it humorous, because I promise you that there is nothing even remotely humorous about what they were experiencing. And yet twice this week I have talked with dudes who have attempted to “find the humor” in the misogynist abuse that I get through this blog. Because, you know – life is funny! Laugh it off! Because misogyny is just such a laugh riot and I should be able to shake it off!

So yeah. Don’t do that. You might think you are helping, BUT YOU ARE NOT. You are doing the opposite of helping.

5. STOP TALKING AND JUST LISTEN

Look, it can be hard when someone you care about or respect tells you about awful shit they are experiencing. It may be that your natural impulse is to jump in and try to help! Because you want to be a not-terrible human being! But that impulse? Sorry dudes – but mostly it is super unhelpful.

Look, as a dude just starting out in feminism I can pretty much guarantee you that any solutions you have to offer are not going to be original. The woman you want to share your “brilliant insights” with will not be awed or impressed, because she will have heard them before from every other well-meaning-but-unhelpful-dude who thinks that he has All The Answers. The thing you’re trying to fix is MY FUCKING LIFE. Which I have been living, all day every day for quite a long time now. I spend quite a lot of time thinking about it, seeing as how it’s mine, and I can promise you that the thing that popped into your head after two minutes of listening to me talk about my problems isn’t anything I haven’t already thought about myself.

So stop. Just. STOP. And listen. And when a response seems warranted, practice saying things that follow this formula (your wording may vary):

Expression of sympathy: “That must suck”, “That sounds hard”, “Wow – that’s bullshit” PLUS

Expression of regret: “I’m sorry you have to go through that”, “I’m sorry – you don’t deserve that”, “I’m sorry that happened to you” PLUS

Expression of (CONTEXT-APPROPRIATE) respect and/or appreciation: “You’re my friend and I have your back”, “I love you and I’m here for you”, “I admire your work and continue to find value in what you do”.

Then stop. Listen more. And repeat as needed. Because this? THIS is the shit that keeps me sane when I’m having a bad anxiety day, or when I’m so angry I’m trying not to cry, or when I feel like I just want to give up and walk away from it all. THIS.

Now go forth and do better.

[1] Reasons I have been told that I am not worth listening to in the last month include: I am “fat”, I am “ugly”, I am “unfuckable”, and I kill mens’ boners.

The importance of good art direction

So the big secret project that I’ve been working on has had me thinking about the importance of good art direction in tabletop games recently. Good art direction can make an already fun game compelling and engage new audiences. However, even art direction that is simply mediocre can have the opposite effect by alienating potential customers before they even get a chance to explore what your game is about.

There are a lot of things that go into what makes for good art direction – is the art well-crafted? Is it relevant to the game you’re trying to sell? Is it evocative and inspiring? Does it reflect the play experience you are trying to create? All of these are important goals to strive for in good art direction. But just as important, and sadly almost universally overlooked by major game publishers, is overall inclusiveness of artwork. And I say this not as a feminist culture critic, but as a game publisher.

The reason tabletop RPGs are so art-heavy is because good art sells more games. Quality art by artists capable of doing professional-looking work is not cheap, and acquiring art assets is expensive both in terms of dollars and time spent. Companies like WotC, Paizo, and the rest are ultimately in it for the profit, even if individual employees might happen to be passionate about the medium; they wouldn’t go through the tremendous hassle of procuring such large numbers of art assets if it weren’t ultimately profitable to do so.

By that metric, inclusiveness is every bit as important as craft or any of the other common standards of what makes for good art direction. I can’t tell you the number of times my very first exposure to a game has been through some piece of bullshit sexist art – usually a cover or promo image – that has completely turned me off ever wanting to purchase or otherwise support the game[1]. Given that women account for nearly half of tabletop gamers, this is a pretty huge failure of art direction. Good art direction should only ever expand your potential audience, not eliminate potential customers right off the bat – especially when those potential customers account for nearly half of your market.

The problem is that good inclusive art direction can be a lot more challenging than it looks. Even if you have a design and development team who want to create an inclusive product, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result will be stereotype-free. The sheer number of illustrations that most finished games contain means that most development teams will be working with multiple artists. Each artist will bring their own entrenched attitudes and biases, and none of the artists will be looking at the overall picture, so without a concerted effort to keep an eye on the big picture even a well-intentioned development team can wind up simply replicating the industry standard in terms of unfortunately stereotyped art.

So with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at two of the most common pitfalls that get in the way of inclusive game art.

Obstacle the first: Defaultism

First, defaultism is a bit of a tricky thing to define, so I’m going to quote the excellent Strix:

Defaultism is the idea that we fall back on the status quo when something is not defined. We go with what is most familiar and “normal.” White Americans are a little over two-thirds of the population, but the vast majority of our media is dominated by this demographic, not just in games, but movies, TVs shows, and books. Because of the primacy of white characters in media, if a character is not explicitly stated to be of a different race they are often assumed to be white. Similar problems arise with gender expectations and sexual orientation. … Most gamers unconsciously gravitate to the straight white male as our hero, our role model, and the baseline for play. — Whitney Strix Beltrán

(Really you should read Strix’s entire piece on Tor.com about defaultism, it’s quite wonderful.)

Given that the population of people working in professional game development skews overwhelmingly white and male, it shouldn’t be surprising that defaultism is a major problem in roleplaying games. Every numbers post I’ve ever done shows that across all sectors of gaming, depictions of men consistently outnumber depictions of women, and that when women are depicted they are often stereotyped in harmful ways. Defaultism at work, friends.

The problem with defaultism is that even when you’re aware that you have a problem and need to increase inclusiveness in your product line’s art, attempts to take action can have mixed results. Wizards of the Coast, the company behind both D&D and Magic: the Gathering, is a great example of this. With the new edition of D&D, WotC has done a fantastic job of making the new core books inclusive across both racial and gender lines. Unfortunately, the same can’t exactly be said of Magic.

While it’s true that recent expansions have gotten much better in terms of reducing the number of horribly stereotyped and objectified women, it’s also the case that the reduction in depictions of objectified women has probably directly resulted in a much lower number of female characters overall. Unfortunately, it seems that for a fair number of artists working on Magic, the priority is: 1) men 2) sexay wimmenz 3) men 4) non-objectified women with agency.

However, this shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise to the team handling art direction for Magic! Many of the artists illustrating for them are artists they have worked with for years, with known habits, tendencies, and preferences. Given the extreme willingness of some Magic artists to throw card concepts to the wind in favor of sexay laydeez, it’s actually depressingly predictable that an effort by WotC to crack down on depictions of bullshit sexism would result in artists just saying “fine, I won’t draw women at all then”.

Thankfully, there is a way to get around this: always plan for the big picture! Rather than leaving variables like gender and race up to chance or the whim of your artists, make a master plan of all of the illustrations that will be needed for a given project and assign gender/race to each spec before handing out specs to artists. In all likelihood, it will feel silly the first time you plan a project this way. But the reality is that each of us carries biases and stereotypes that require conscious effort and planning to counter.

Of course, taking steps to counter defaultism will likely mean that you’ll encounter…

Obstacle the second: Rogue artists

A nontrivial subset of established game industry artists are men with, shall we say, entrenched views on how women should be illustrated[2].  And quite often, when these artists are handed a spec that calls for a female character, they will find a way to make that female character sexxay even if it makes no goddamn sense. I’ve taken to calling this Wayne Reynolds Syndrome, as the eponymous Wayne Reynolds is a goddamn master at sneaking cleavage into illustrations where the art spec clearly called for a woman who is strong, competent, and not sexualized:

Imrijka_360

Illustrations by Wayne Reynolds

(God dammit, Wayne.)

Now look, I understand that the idea of telling legendary artists like Wayne Reynolds to go back to the drawing board (see what I did there) when they hand in a sketch with sphereboobs and gratuitous cleavage can be off-putting. And sure, Wayne’s women might be overly sexualized, but at least they are also powerful and have a real sense of agency – and that’s no small thing, right?

But again, that is a failure in art direction. Is it extra work having to send drawings back to be revised? Absolutely! Can artists accustomed to drawing objectified women be truculent about making appropriate revisions? You bet! Is it a hassle to have to write emails saying things like “can we have this without ridiculous cleavage” or “please get rid of the nipples” or “give her pants and also make this less crotch-ular”? For sure! But guess what, if you’re responsible for art direction, it’s also your job.

Thankfully, while rogue artists can be an irritating to deal with, they don’t present an insurmountable hurdle. As the publisher, you have all of the power in the employer/employee relationship – artists work for you and not the other way around! When an artist hands you a draft that doesn’t meet your standards, don’t accept it. You don’t need to be apologetic or defensive or embarrassed. Don’t make apologies or justifications, either. Simply be firm and say “this doesn’t meet our needs, these are the revisions that need to be made”. That’s why they call it art direction – you are there to provide directions for your artists.

Caveat: There are more obstacles to inclusive art direction than just these

…which should be obvious, right? One of the biggest problems with making game products that have truly inclusive art is the demographics of the industry and the terrible reality of privilege. Even with the best intentions, sometimes some nasty shit is going to slip right on through thanks to the effects of privilege. When harmful stereotypes don’t affect you, it can be really hard to see them even if you know you have to watch for them!

However, by taking steps to plan against defaultism and taking a firm hand with rogue artists, you will already have a huge leg up on the competition. Because the sad reality is that the bar is already so low that even a moderate attempt at inclusive art direction will still be a huge improvement over most of what’s already out there.

[1] Case in point: there are several people on my G+ talking up Smite right now. Apparently it’s solidly reliable fun! But with character design like this, there’s no fucking way I’m ever going to give it a chance.

[2] Although, honestly, there are a lot of amazing not-dude artists out there. And while there are women who do pinup style artwork as their primary focus, generally I’ve found that female artists tend to be a lot more receptive to not automatically sexualizing all female characters.

This might be too personal

[Note: I am the literal worst at titles. After staring at the title box for half an hour, I finally gave up and typed the first thing that came to me. I’m aware that it’s an awful title, but I give up.]

This post is actually one of the “big things” I’ve had in the works for a few weeks now; although it’s more “big” in the amount of work that went into it than in the “super-exciting” kind of way.

…I’m not really sure how else to introduce it, so I’ll just say that it’s a pretty personal comic and save additional commentary for the end of the post. The images are large and weirdly shaped, so I’m placing the rest of the post under a jump so that it doesn’t screw up formatting for people reading on mobile. (The resizing might make the text a bit hard to read, so you can click on the image for a larger, clearer view.)

Read more of this post

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