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.

WTF, WotC? Your art direction is confusing.

The dilemma: two product lines, two art direction styles, one company

One of the things that has long been a source of irritation for me is the inconsistent art direction of Wizards of the Coast’s two major game products – Magic: The Gathering and D&D.  It strikes me as weird that M:TG and D&D are both product lines owned and operated by WotC, and yet they have such wildly different approaches to art direction. (To be honest, it seems like a bit of a branding issue to me, but then what the hell do I know. I’m just an indie publisher.)

This has become top-of-mind recently for a few reasons. First, despite both of us being Magic: The Gathering fans, my husband follows the design and spoiler blogs much more closely than I do. (In that he reads them and I don’t.) So he tends to show me previews of art that he knows I will either find hilarious or objectionable. (Or both.) Recently, he’s been showing me a lot more of the latter, alas.

Second, as I prepare for this year’s GenCon, I keep thinking about last year and how the release of D&D 5th Edition wound up being a pretty big deal for me – despite that I still have not purchased any 5E products or even played the game. I got to have lunch with Mike Mearls and discuss the future direction of D&D and D&D art direction – something which was way encouraging.

And everything that I’ve seen, at least observing from a distance, coming out of the new D&D line has been pretty great and inclusive! Like check out these illustrations that come from the starter set:

STARTUP ILLOS

Pretty awesome, right? Fully clothed female characters that have personality, agency, and aren’t pointlessly objectified. And there’s lots more examples of this sort of thing!

Which, again, is baffling when you consider that Magic… Magic can’t decide what the hell it’s doing – if they want to do better by women, or exclude them, or have more of them but sexier, or just go back to their old awful ways and forget about trying to improve their depictions of women at all. As someone who has only seriously gotten into Magic in the last two years, it’s been weird and off-putting to watch.

So while I realize that the plural of anecdote is not data, it’s something that has bothered me sufficiently that I thought it would be worth taking a look at what Magic has been up to recently that has been getting under my skin.

M:TG’s recent art direction: I call shenanigans

I’ve written in the past about how I find the trend toward better art in Magic expansions to be (mostly) encouraging. Particularly in Khans of Tarkir – there were some really great illustrations of non-sexualized powerful women doing fantastically gonzo awesome shit! However, while Khans may have done much better in cutting down on the bullshit sexism, they did so at the cost of actually – yannow – depicting any women.

Still. I was hopeful that the overall trend of not fucking up at depicting women might continue! But alas, no joy.

First there came Magic: Origins – a core set focused on, well, the origins of the planeswalkers – characters that are meant to be player avatars. Being a core set, there are often a lot of reprinted cards, which tends to mean reprints of old art. So it’s not surprising that some old awful art (like the boobplate sideboob in Act of Treason) is sneaking through. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of brand-new awful to be found – particularly with their treatment of female planeswalkers.

See, planeswalkers in Magic: Origins are actually double-sided. They start out as a Legendary Creature, then when they meet a certain condition you turn them over and they become a planeswalker. In theory, pretty cool, right? You get a chance to see and play with familiar planeswalkers in their pre- and post-planeswalker states. The problem is, as always, the execution. Take, for example, Liliana – one of Magic’s oldest female planeswalkers. Liliana is a pretty classic example of the evil woman who is evil because she is sexay (or maybe she is sexay because she is evil?). But somehow WotC dug deep and found a way to make Liliana even worse:

liliana-origins

On the left, you see Liliana in her pre-planeswalker state. That’s right, young, innocent, demure, and not even remotely sexual. On the right is the art for Liliana once she becomes a planeswalker – definitely one of the more sexual Liliana’s that I’ve seen. Because women with power are evil and evil women are sexy. Or something.

Sadly, it’s not unique to Liliana – whose color is black, which has always been the color of “evil”. Nissa Revane doesn’t fare any better, and she is plain old green. Just like Liliana, she gets to wear clothes when she’s not a planeswalker, but then as soon as she’s a planeswalker? BOOM. CLEAVAGE WINDOW.

What the ever loving fuck, Magic? Are you trying to say that women can only have power so long as they are sexually pleasing to a (presumed) straight male viewer? Because that’s pretty fucked up, especially for a game that claims to be friendly for children.

It gets even worse when you look at more fringey M:TG products that WotC is working on releasing, like Modern Masters – a limited edition set that will be reprinting some of the most popular cards that have fallen out of legality with the standard format. These are just straight up reprints of old cards with old art, which means that there is some extra shitty sexist cards like these gems:

MODERN MASTERS

Man, that woman in Blades of Velis Vel is possibly the most Liefeld-ian piece of Magic art that I have ever seen – obscured hands and feat, impossibly thin torso, improbable levels of spine arch, and ridiculous 90s-ish costume. All it needs is some AWSUM POUCHES!!1! to complete the ensemble.

Meanwhile, Indomitable Angel is both weird and baffling. Is she wearing armor, or is she actually made of metal and is just naked? Does she actually have an 8-pack? What is up with her shoulders? Are those actually attached to her boobs? Does she have metal boob-pauldrons? WHY ARE BOOB-PAULDRONS EVEN A THING??

But even Indomitable Angel isn’t as confusing as Fiery Fall. It took a solid two minutes of staring at it for me to even figure out what was going on until I realized that it was a human woman falling upside down so that the artist could get in both upskirt AND underboob without the unwanted effort of trying to squeeze in humanizing details like a face. Because who cares about portraying her as a person about to meet a grim fate so long as we can ogle her tits before she messes them up by falling into lava?

Ugh. Just ugh.

But for me, the shit icing on the shit cake are these two card previews taken from From the Vault: Angels – a limited edition 15 card set reprinting old angels. 5 out of the 15 cards are even getting new art, which I would normally take as an encouraging sign! That is until my husband showed me these:

AKROMA-NEW

Nope. That’s not old artwork, folks. That’s NEW artwork. New artwork which took the old character designs and faithfully translated them into something just as bad, or possibly even a bit worse than the old art:

AKROMA-OLD
I KNOW that I prefer the old Angel of Wrath to the new art. Sure the boobplate is just as stupid and obvious phallic symbol is still obvious and phallic. But at least the old art doesn’t make her look like she’s five seconds away from humping the damn sword. As for the Angel of Fury, I go back and forth. It’s definitely artist that the artist got lazy when it came to the not-sexy bits – obscured hands and feet anyone? But at least the old art looks like she’s actually doing something – namely flying. Whereas the new art shows her… uh… vamping? Power posing? I’m not really sure what, to be honest.

Conclusion: I don’t know what the fuck to think

So all of this nonsense has left me feeling very conflicted about the state of Magic: The Gathering and whether I want to continue supporting it with my dollaz. I enjoy the occasional sealed-pack event, which is pretty much how I’ve acquired most of my collection. And despite the problems that the Magic division of WotC seems to have with not actually failing at depicting women, I was willing to cut them some slack given that things overall seemed to (slowly) be getting better. But given the amount of eye-rolling I’ve done lately, I’m starting to question my willingness to continue turning a blind eye.

Seriously – I get that it can be difficult to change the direction of a flagship product as large and entrenched as Magic: The Gathering. But the knowledge and experience on how to do so already exists IN THEIR OWN DAMN COMPANY. Someone on the Magic team needs to pick up the damn phone and have a serious conversation with the art team for D&D already.

(As for myself, this has me regretting that I didn’t keep all my old data on art from Magic sets for previous posts about Magic on this blog. I know it would be quite the undertaking, but I’m thinking it could be pretty interesting (if incredibly time-consuming) to compile numbers for every set for the last three or so years so as to be able to have some real numbers regarding trends.)

On tone policing and acceptable expressions of anger

I had planned for my next post to be a post about GenCon as a microcosm for the state of the gaming community. I wanted to write about the things that are giving me hope with regards to GenCon prep and the energy going into the convention, as well as some things that are giving me some trepidation and making me a bit nervous about venturing into a gamer space actually in person. And then life happened. Or rather, the internet happened to a real life thing and it sucked.

The drama, summarized

In a facebook group for a group of gamers who play games together in a consistent meatspace location, there was discussion of a game that was to be playtested that focused on a sensitive subject matter. English is not the first language of the designer, so predictably misunderstandings resulted. In response to these misunderstandings, a member of the group who is marginalized in a way that the game was attempting to explore, jumped directly to personal attacks – first on the designer and facilitator, and subsequently on the moderator of the group who own the space where the games are played. The marginalized person has also tried to get third parties from outside the group to join the group and shout down everyone who agrees with them. These third parties have also sent abusive messages to the female co-facilitator of the game (not even the designer!), which the female co-facilitator finds understandably upsetting and frightening.

TL;DR, there was a controversy and a marginalized person leaped straight to personal attacks and harassing behavior.

Get it? Got it? Good.

Moving on: the dilemma, and why it matters

So why am I writing about this and why should anyone outside of this particular group of people care? Simple. I discovered that I have a lot to say about acceptable expressions of anger versus unacceptable expressions of anger in response to perceived oppression.

Now before I get started, it’s important for me to acknowledge that I am a white middle-class able-bodied English-speaking cishet woman. So it’s easy to look at the above statement and hear “whoa, wundergeek is about engage in some grade A tone policing”. Which. No. Not even. Fuck tone policing right in the goddamn ear.

A lot of what I write here is angry. I refuse to censor my anger in an effort to gain acceptance for my arguments or to make people more comfortable with either my arguments or me as a person. Telling someone that they should talk to you calmly and unemotionally about the oppression that they are experiencing is the height of clueless privilege, and I will righteously tear down anyone who tries to claim otherwise.

HOWEVER, righteous anger about lived oppression IS NOT a blank check to retaliate in any way that you see fit. As an oppressed person, you can’t choose not to be oppressed. But you CAN choose how you choose to express your anger over that oppression. Is anger a powerful emotion that can lead us to make impulsive decisions? Absolutely! But there’s a reason why we don’t excuse murder or violence by saying “well I was angry”; learning how to deal with your anger in ways that don’t harm others is part of living in a civilized society – a skill that you are expected to possess in some capacity in order to be a functioning grown-ass human.

At the end of the day, the person you are lashing out against is still a fucking human being with hopes and dreams, aspirations and struggles, vulnerabilities and insecurities. Your anger about their complicity in systems of oppression that are harming you DOES NOT give you permission to harm them right back. Because guess what? WE ARE ALL COMPLICIT in systems of oppression. Every single one of us. It’s how society fucking works.

“But dammit, wundergeek. That sucks. Let me have my anger, okay, because it is righteous and totally justified!”

Again, I’m not telling you not to be angry or not to express anger, because that way lies tone policing. Instead, here are some ground rules:

Someone was a butthead and you are angry? Cool. How are you going to respond?

DO call out the offending party. Tell them why you are angry and how what they said or did reinforced the systems of oppression that cause you harm.

DO NOT jump straight to personal attacks without even attempting to have a conversation with the person you are angry at.

DO be open to the possibility that part of the inciting incident was a misunderstanding on your part. Human language is weird and imprecise and confusing, even when you’re communicating face-to-face. It’s orders of magnitude more difficult when you’re talking about online or other asynchronous communication, since you don’t have nonverbal social cues to add context to what is being said.

DO NOT use feminist theory as a personal attack to bully someone into being quiet when they are attempting to have a good faith conversation with you. If you don’t have time or bandwidth for the conversation, it is totally okay to say so! I get it. I do! I almost never engage in 101-level conversations because I don’t have the time or patience for them. But if someone is indicating that they are listening to you and you use feminist theory to tell them why they are a bad person and should feel bad about themselves, you are being an asshole.

DO use language that centers on “thing you did”or “the thing that you said”. 99% of the time, you will be angry about an inciting incident and not the totality of the other person as a human being – the sum of their dreams and thoughts and experiences. (And if you find that you are at that level of anger with someone, I would politely suggest that that’s not a healthy place to be.)

DO NOT attempt to win the argument through numbers or brute force by bringing in biased third parties who agree with your point of view. SERIOUSLY DON’T DO IT. That shit is straight up harassment and is NEVER FUCKING OKAY.

DO lean on friends, family, and other members of your support network for support and vent your frustrations. Safe spaces where you can express your hurt to trusted loved ones are important in order to stay sane.

DO NOT trash the person you are angry with to biased third parties with the understanding that these people will then tell the person you are angry with how awful they are. Regardless of who the abuse is coming from, that is harassment and you are the inciting party.

DO hold people accountable for harm that their words or actions have caused.

DO NOT insist on continuing a conversation when it is actively harming someone. I’m not saying that their guilty feeeeelings need to trump a real conversation – not in the slightest, because guilt and lived oppression are not even remotely equivalent. However, if a conversation escalates to the point where it is triggering someone’s mental health issues (say because of volume or unintended fallout or personal attacks) and you insist on continuing that conversation, that is not okay. If you find yourself in such a situation, back off and suggest a resumption of discussion once feelings have had a chance to cool.

DO remember to hold on to compassion even when angry. Is it hard? Sure. But we’re humans – we are capable of feeling conflicting emotions. Embrace that capacity and use it.

Lastly…

DO remember to consider the context of the situation when deciding how to respond. Where did the inciting incident take place? How did it happen? Who was involved? What is the history of the people involved wrt your oppression? Are there reasons why you should be inclined to read/listen charitably?

In dealing with buttheads here on my blog, I’m often quite prone to not thinking of them as humans, because that just occupies too much bandwidth that they don’t deserve. Often, deleting their comments and replacing them with a sarcastic meme or male tears GIF suffices, and I move on with my life. But that level of dismissive pithiness would not be appropriate in a disagreement with someone in meatspace, and it would be especially inappropriate with someone I was closely connected to or someone that I knew had a proven history of trying not to be a butthead.

Of course, the existence of things like facebook groups for real-life groups of people complicates matters. Often it’s easy forget that the words on a screen attached to an icon are also attached to someone you are personally connected to in real life. Be conscious of that fact and choose your words with care, if you feel the need to tell people they are wrong on the internet.

Lastly, be aware of potential mitigating factors that might cause misunderstandings. Read and listen charitably, and ask for clarification when something bothers you. Returning to the actual incident that generated this post, if someone you know does not share a first language with you says something that you find harmful or offensive, it’s actually pretty damn likely that they were actually trying to say something different from the thing you took offense at. Attempting to converse in a language that is NOT your native language puts you at a significant disadvantage in any conversation; jumping straight from statement to personal attacks makes YOU the asshole because you are holding them to a standard that you know they aren’t capable of meeting.

On female protagonists and the cowardice of AAA publishers

While it’s clear that there is still a long way to go in terms of evening the playing field as far as representation of women in AAA gaming is concerned, undeniably things are (slowly) getting better. Recently I’ve written about female representation in games previewed at E3, as well as the amazing and rich focus on women’s stories in Life is Strange – so there is tangible evidence that things are indeed changing! Unfortunately, one thing that really isn’t helping is the, sadly still quite prevalent, myth that female protagonists are bad for sales.

You see, despite women now accounting for half of video gamers and the clear majority of all consumer purchases, AAA Game studios are terrified of female-led titles, because marketing to the 18-34 white cishet dude is how it’s always been done. And much like Hollywood, big-budget games have such large budgets that the big studios are reluctant to try anything “new” that might stray outside of their already-proven sales formulas – even if that “something new” is making games that star protagonists that look like half the people on the goddamn planet.

There are developers out there who are bucking the trend and managing to get female-led games published. But the resistance that they face in finding AAA publishers who are willing to publish and distribute these games can be… formidable. Things may be changing, but that change can fairly be described as glacial, and there are still a lot of publishers out there who prefer to make their money the way it’s always been done. (Read: by not publishing games with women in them)

So on the rare occasion that there is a development studio working on a game that features female protagonists, all too often what they hear from the publishers they attempt to court is that they need to make the protagonists male. Take, for example, Dontnod Entertainment – the developers behind both Remember Me and Life is Strange. Both titles were conceived of as stories with female protagonists from the beginning:

dontnod

LEFT: Niln, Remember Me RIGHT: Max and Chloe, Life is Strange

Predictably, when Dontnod started approaching developers about both of these games, the very first response was “looks great, but you need to make the protagonists male”. Because, of course, men are relateable and universal while women are weird with only limited niche appeal.

Seriously! Check this out:

When Dontnod started showing Remember Me to publishers, some of them refused to publish the title simply because people would playing as a woman in it, and because that could reduce the game’s sales potential.

“We had some [companies] that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that,'” said Moris.

–Source: Polygon – Remember Me dev says publishers balked at a female lead character

But wait! It gets even more damning than that, as witnessed by this quote here:

“We wanted to be able to tease on Nilin’s private life, and that means for instance, at one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy. We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.'”

— Source: Eurogamer – Why Publishers Refuse Games Such as Remember Me

Thankfully, things seemed to go a little better for Dontnod while they were shopping around for a publisher for Life is Strange, in that nobody said anything quite as boneheaded. (Or at least, nobody said anything that Dontnod quoted.) Still, Squeenix was pretty much the only one willing to run with a story about two teenage girls for Life is Strange:

“Square is basically the only publisher that didn’t want to change a single thing about the game,” Dontnod co-founder Jean-Maxime “J-Max” Moris says in the video. “We had other publishers telling us ‘Make it a male lead character,’ and Square didn’t even question that once.”

–Source: Kotaku – Publishers Wanted to Change Life is Strange’s Protagonists Into Men

Which, okay. I’ll admit that I’ve been deeply, deeply disappointed by the increasingly misogynistic visual design of Squeenix’s single-player Final Fantasy titles. However, as awful as Squeenix’s character design has gotten in Final Fantasy, the writing for their female characters has always been top notch[1]! So it does make a certain amount of sense that it would be Squeenix that would wind up publishing Life is Strange.

However, it’s also worth noting that this was also well after the runaway success of The Last of Us – Naughty Dog’s survival horror game about a grizzled man and a young girl on a harrowing mission in the fungus-zombie apocalypse. While Joel was the primary protagonist of TLoU, the story was about both Joel and Ellie. Furthermore, Ellie is actually playable for a large chunk of the game, and repeatedly saves Joel’s life.

last-of-us-ellie

The Last of Us totally killed in terms of sales numbers. In the first week alone, The Last of Us sold 1.3 million  copies! Perhaps because Naughty Dog is an established studio with a proven track record of franchise-spawning hits, they didn’t face pressure to remove Ellie from the game (although the cynic in me says that’s because she was the secondary protagonist, and thus not a threat to Joel’s primacy). However, they did wind up fighting a lesser version of that same pernicious battle, as their publisher made efforts to get them to remove Ellie from the cover art, or at the very least push her to the back of the box:

During the making of The Last of Us, developer Naughty Dog “flat-out refused” to move Ellie — one of this title’s two central characters — to the back of the game’s cover art, during discussions over whether female-led game covers sell fewer units, creative director Neil Druckmann told VG247.

— Source: Polygon – The Last of Us developer refused to push female lead to back of cover

Thankfully Naughty Dog stuck to their guns, because AAA gaming has more than enough cover art featuring grizzled white dudes looking grimly into the middle distance, thank you very much.

The same could not be said of Irrational Games, who caved to pressure to push Elizabeth, the protagonist’s companion and partner, to the back of the box. Worse, the cover art itself was one of the blandest renditions of “white dude with firearm in front of explosions” that I have ever seen grace the cover of a video game.

Subsquently, when there was a flap over Elizabeth’s exclusion, Ken Levine – Bioshock Infinite’s creative director – gave the most weak sauce explanation of why they HAD to make their cover so bland.

Our gaming world, we sometimes forget, is so important to us, but… there are plenty of products that I buy that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. My salad dressing. If there’s a new salad dressing coming out, I would have no idea. I use salad dressing; I don’t read Salad Dressing Weekly. I don’t care who makes it, I don’t know any of the personalities in the salad dressing business.

— Source: Wired – Ken Levine Explains Bioshock Infinite’s Bland Box Art

Their hands were tied! Honest! There’s just no way that they could ever have made a business case for putting a fucking woman on the cover of a game that she features prominently in! Because reasons! Salad dressing reasons!

(I’m sure there are more examples of this sort of shenanigans that I’m not aware of, given that I don’t tend to closely follow the politics of game development in the AAA industry, but going further would be beating a dead horse.)

So now we have a landscape in which games like The Last of Us and Life is Strange (which cracked the top five Playstation games in February of this year) have started to blaze a trail towards AAA publishers finally pulling their heads out of their asses and realizing that yes people will still pay to play games starring women. And yet, the studios smart enough to actually start moving in this “bold” and “new” direction are engaging in so much whinging about how MAKING GAMES ABOUT WOMEN IS HARD AND REALLY SCARY YOU GUYS that it’s enough to make me want to punch someone.

Case in point: just about everything I read coming out of E3 about Sony’s upcoming title Horizon Zero Dawn featured Sony execs simultaneously trying to sell the game on its merits while also fearfully apologizing for having the temerity to make a game with a female lead. Frex:

“She’s a female lead character,” he said. “That has always been the vision by the team, but we had a discussion. Is it risky to do a female character?”

In fact, once development was underway, so many questions were asked about the protagonist internally, that the company brought in a marketing team to do some focus testing.

“The concern came after the game was in development,” he said. “We started to show it to many more people internally and they had questions about it. So we worked with our marketing groups to do this focus testing.

“We wanted to see how people would react to some of the things: open world RPG, the set up of machine versus primitive weapons and the female protagonist. All of those things.”

— Source: Sony was worried about a female protagonist in Killzone dev’s new IP

“We’re just… we’re just so worried. I mean, we have this great concept for a killer game with entertaining game play, and we have an obscene budget for graphics, but we’re just worried that no one will buy it because cooties. So, you know, we did lots of focus groups and they all told us that cooties aren’t a thing, but that doesn’t square with our industry experience that gamers won’t buy games with women because they don’t want cooties. After extensive research, we’re pressing forward, but we just want to say that we’re really, really nervous about cooties.”

OH MY GOD JUST SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UUUUUUP.

Look , you’re making a game about a wildling woman fighting robot dinosaurs in the post-apocalypse. THAT’S AMAZING. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

Herd.0

If you’re going to publish games about women, just fucking do it and spare me the hand-wringing apologies, because honestly – this level of cowardice is pretty hard to stomach when all we’re talking about is making games that happen to star a fucking woman.

Okay? Okay. Now get out there and make me some more games with female protagonists, pronto. I’m all caught up on Life is Strange and I’m jonesing for more games like that, please.

[1] With the notable exception of Lightning Returns, which was garbage.

 

Life is Strange and the importance of womens’ stories

[Concerning spoilers: Before I get started, this post does contain spoilers. I have written as broadly as I can about certain plot points to avoid ruining the story, but a certain level of specificity is required. Only episode 1 is spoiled in any great detail. If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, I’ll mark the point in the post past which you’ll want to stop reading.]

(spoiler-free) reflections on the “relateable-ness[1]” of women’s stories

I spent a large portion of my free time last week catching up on Life Is Strange, the breathtakingly amazing adventure game/RPG by Dontnod studios about a high school senior who discovers that she can rewind time by about two minutes and her subsequent, increasingly weird, adventures as she attempts to solve the mystery of a missing student while also averting a vision of a disastrous future.

If that description doesn’t sound appealing, then let me add that I hate adventure games and make a point of avoiding them at all costs. But I have loved LiS episodes 1-3 and am eagerly awaiting the next installment! The writing is compelling – I cried at the end of episode 2 and damn near cried at the end of episode 3. It also feels very true-to-life; certainly Max’s (the protagonist) experiences as she awkwardly attempts to navigate the treacherous social waters of her school felt very true to my experiences as an outsider at my own high school.

So given the enjoyable gameplay, the well-crafted writing, and the fact that playing Life is Strange gave me ALL OF THE FEELS, you’d think that I’d be willing to shout its praise from the rooftops, right?

But when a male friend asked if he should give it a try, once I’d played through the first few hours of episode 1, I found myself stymied as to how to answer; the friend in question didn’t have the experience of being a teenage girl, for one, and that shared experience with the protagonist is part of what made the game so compelling for me. Not to mention that Life is Strange is a game that is primarily about the stories of women and girls, and “naturally” wouldn’t be as compelling or relateable to a male audience. So I wound up giving an equivocal answer, something along the lines of “I’m enjoying it but I don’t know how you’d like it”.

It was only later when I was discussing it with my husband that I caught myself making the same disclaimers and realized that that whole line of reasoning was absolutely full of shit.

The coming-of-age story is so ridiculously common that it has become a cornerstone of the modern literary and film canon. And while it’s true that there are a few examples where coming-of-age stories feature a female protagonist, the genre is largely defined by its male protagonists. But if I, as someone who has never been a teenage boy or had any experience of trying to navigate the social pressures of assuming a restrictive cultural definition of manhood, can be capable of consuming male coming-of-age stories and finding them (the well-crafted ones, at any rate) engaging, then why shouldn’t the opposite be true?

Books like Catcher in the Rye are considered to classics, books that truly educated people should have read. However, had Holden Caulfield been a girl, it’s most likely that Catcher in the Rye would be consigned to “young adult” or “girl’s” literature status, along with Judy Blume and any number of talented authors who wrote about girls’ experiences of being a teenager.

This is because in our patriarchal society, men are the default. Their stories are “universal” “accessible” “relateable” and “important”. Conversely, women are specific, atypical, unrelateable, and unimportant. And yet, even knowing all of that, my initial gut reaction when I was asked “should I play this” by a friend who is a man was “well I like it but it might not be to your taste”. Which was dumb, since Life is Strange is one of the most powerful, important games that I have ever played – something more than just another murder simulator that I devoutly hope that represents a new direction for AAA game studios like Squeenix.

past this point, there be spoilers

So what makes Life is Strange so important, you might ask? Well, gentle reader, LiS is unlike any game I have played before, for a number of reasons.

First, it is full of complex female characters. There are strong characters, passive characters, antagonist characters, and vulnerable characters. More importantly, all of the major female characters are complex enough that they can fill different roles at different times.

There are characters, like Victoria Chase and her lackies, who are undisputed villains, but they are never presented as villains because of their gender. It’s a tricky balance to strike, given that the actions that make them villains are very stereotypical teenage girl cruelty, but Victoria and her gang are given motivations that go beyond simply “girls are all enemies”. (It helps that Victoria does also get some small moments of sympathy, when the player is allowed to see behind the mask.)

lis-kate

There are also female characters with whom you form strong bonds of love and respect: Chloe and Joyce (Chloe’s mother), but also Kate to a lesser extent (if you choose to help her). Particularly with Chloe and Joyce, while these relationships have troubled aspects, they are also painted as enduring – which is refreshing, given how depressingly common “cat fight” is  as a default relationship for female characters in ANY medium.

Second, LiS takes a serious look at the lives and relationships of teenage girls without trivializing or infantalizing them. Because of how we’ve been conditioned to see the struggles of teenage girls navigating a path to adulthood as unimportant, it’s easy to look at a game like LiS and see nothing but “teenage drama”. Thankfully, the writers do an amazing job of looking at the emotional consequences of that “drama” and how that pain causes people to feel and react.

Third, LiS deals explicitly with bullying and the realities of online harassment – and it doesn’t do so in a way that feels preachy or out of touch. Kate Marsh, one of the secondary characters, starts out as a target of bullying, which later escalates to online harassment. The LiS writers also do a good job of portraying how often the systems of power that are supposed to intervene and keep us (women) safe from harassment wind up further victimizing the women who attempt to access help. And as someone who has experienced both bullying in school and online harassment, I can attest that some of the interactions dealing with Kate were uncomfortably close to home.

lis-kate marsh

Depending on the choices that you make, Max herself can also become a target of online harassment. The messages you receive are unnerving and arrive at unpredictable intervals, which is also true to life. It’s strange and upsetting to be in the middle of going about your business only to have these terrible messages intrude on what you were trying to do:

text

 

Fourth, LiS portrays sexism as a reality of navigating the world as a woman without ever shying away from the terrible emotional damage that that reality creates. One of the primary villains, Nathan Prescott, is a villain because he is rich and entitled – with that sense of entitlement extending to the bodies of the young women around him.

lis-nathan

David, the security chief of Max’s school and Chloe’s stepfather, is also a villain and cautionary tale. He, a grown-ass adult, develops a weird and creepy obsession with a series of teenage girls (one of which is Max), and yet you as the protagonist have to be careful in dealing with him because of the power that he holds over your life. Later, if you choose to hide the first time Chloe butts heads with David, Chloe actually gets slapped by her stepfather but says nothing to anyone, saying that it just would have been worse if you’d tried to step in. And further down the line, if you choose to side with two other female characters in confronting him about his creepy and inappropriate behavior, he throws it back in your face by saying “bitches always stick together”.

And then there are the male authority figures and how they deal with the aftermath of Kate’s bullying coming to a dramatic head at the end of episode 2. It turns out that Mr. Jefferson, a teacher who is portrayed in very sympathetic terms, tried to talk to Kate about the online abuse, only to then blame her for her own victimization. David, who you already know to be a creep, is there in his official capacity. And then there is Nathan, a student, and Principal Wells – who has already proven that he is too invested in the Prescott’s money to take any serious action against Nathan, despite his key role in the matter.

life-is-strange-2-fina

Max, as the protagonist, finds herself the lone woman in an office full of powerful men who are demanding that she tell the truth about what happened, while also clearly conveying the subtext that doing so is clearly against Max’s own best interests. Which is some powerful shit, right there.

Lastly, and most importantly, LiS deals with sexual violence openly and honestly, without trivializing it or excusing it.

One of the key plot points is that young women are getting drugged at parties and being taken advantage of. As a protagonist, you must decide how to react on two separate occasions when two very different women tell you very similar stories of being drugged and possibly assaulted. Do you believe the women and offer support and backup? Or do you keep your distance by engaging in victim blaming? Moreover, the reaction if you do engage in victim blaming is emotionally wrenching and deeply shaming, which is as it should be!

Critically, LiS also avoids perpetrating the common (harmful) “wisdom” about sexual assault by having these attacks come from someone that is known to the victims. Because unfortunately, that is the reality of sexual assault; overwhelmingly women are attacked by people that they know and have reason to trust; evil-stranger-in-the-bushes assaults do exist, but are very rare. Neither do the writers flinch from showing how there are systems and institutions created by class and money (like school and the police) that protect serial predators from the consequences of their actions, so that they can be free to keep assaulting.

And yet, as difficult as these things are to deal with emotionally when presented in such hard-hitting terms, these factors all make me very happy that this game exists. Because THIS GAME. THIS GAME is the sort of thing that I have been wishing major studios like Squeenix would start publishing. Apart from its own merits as an artistic work, playing Life is Strange made me feel like there was actually a part of the gaming industry that was listening, that gave a shit about me as a human being. Finally, finally, it feels like someone is reflecting myself (or a younger version of myself) and my experiences, and that feeling is amazing.

[1] Yes that is too a word. Shut up, spell check.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 299 other followers