When games are written by straight men for straight men: the problem with Emily is Away [CW][TW][spoilers]

[Note before I start, that I get pretty shouty about gaslighting, manipulation, and rape in this post. So please proceed with caution and care.]

One of the (many) problems of the male as default protagonist in any form of entertainment is that it’s left me cold for vast swathes of media, even media that is critically acclaimed. We’re told that male protagonists are more “relate-able”, and that men can’t be expected to identify with female protagonists. And leaving aside the blatant unfairness of that statement, it is true that women will identify with male protagonists – to a certain point. However, after a while, it just gets hard to care about media obviously aimed at men. For most of my life, I consumed stories mostly about men, but past a certain point you start to ask – why am I never reflected? Why should I care about this story about Yet Another Chapter In the Continuing Adventures of Manly Mans Doing Manly Things when the purveyors couldn’t give two shits what I think?

So. Hold that thought a moment.

I’ve been meaning to write about Emily is Away for a while now. I’d heard great things about it from various sources about the game and how the unique interface delivers compelling gameplay through moments like watching your typing errors be corrected or watching yourself delete or revise your comments. My vague impression of Emily is Away was that it was supposed to be a charming love story about two people whose relationship is witnessed through AIM, and that it was supposed to be well executed.

That was something that I was really interested in! I’ve written previously about how I wish that AAA gaming would make more games that aren’t just violence simulators with awesome graphics. And given that I met my husband online in a newsgroup, then migrated to having conversations via ICQ and IRC… the whole “relationship by AIM” thing was nostalgia that I was interested in revisiting. I felt like I was in the audience that this story was targeting – people who chatted on archaic chat platforms of the 90’s who have had an internet romance.

Unfortunately, when I actually played Emily is Away, I had the rug pulled out from under me, because once again I discovered that I’d been suckered into playing a game that was emphatically Not Written For Me. That frustration only got worse the more times I played it, trying to explore the different branches, because the more I played, the more it hit home that this was a game written by a man for an audience of straight men. Moreover, this post took days to write because I discovered that I have a lot to say about that. So.

Let’s dig into what I mean when I say that this game was written by a man for an audience of straight men. Starting with:

Problem #1: The men in this game are people, the women are props

At no point in this game do we ever get a feel for what Emily as a person is like. She never says anything personal about herself that isn’t about her connection to another dude. She’s going to Travis’ party. She’s getting messages from Brad. She’s dating Brad! But she sure asks lots of questions about YOU – the dude protagonist. (And yes you can put in a female name at character creation. It won’t change the fact that you’re still a dude, but we’ll return to that.)

Emily asks what you chose as your major, but you never ask about hers – nor does she ever talk about what she ends up studying. In the game, you talk about classes, about group projects, about what school is like for you – but YOU NEVER ASK EMILY and SHE NEVER TALKS ABOUT IT. Even when she opens up and says personal things, the only things she talks about relate to her connection with YOU, the protagonist, or her off-again-on-again boyfriend, Brad. Emily isn’t a person. She doesn’t feel “real”. She’s a shallow cardboard cutout. An obvious stand-in for the ultimate Nice Guy fantasy – what if my female friend actually did have feelings for me all along?

Worse, the only other female character in the game, Emma. And she gets ONE out of THREE possible character traits: kind, funny, or hot. Emily at least gets to have a second dimension through some trivial personal details, like the fact that she likes Coldplay and Snow Patrol – which is more than Emma gets. Emma exists in one dimension, because that’s the only dimension she’s ever given. NEITHER of them gets to be a real, three-dimensional person. Even more frustrating, it is VERY HARD not to have a romantic relationship with her.

Emma is depersonalized to the extent that at the end of the game, it’s revealed that you don’t spend time with Emma anymore; if Emma was someone you were pursuing romantically and you chose to go down the path that leads to a romantic encounter with Emily (which we’ll get back to in a sec), Emma rightly kicks you to the curb for ditching your plans with her to make a booty call with your friend from high school. (Seriously, major dick move.) But even if you don’t! Even if you don’t ditch Emma, or you and Emma are nothing more than friends, the ending is always the same. At the end, Emma starts dating someone else and doesn’t have time for you anymore.

Which, really, is the ultimate Nice Guy fear. That a woman they like will find someone else, someone who contributes more than just not being a shitty human being who sees her only as a sexual goal to be attained, and stop spending time with them.

In Chapter 5, when Emily asks how Emma is doing, and you reveal that you don’t see her anymore, you literally don’t have an option that indicates that you’re sad about not seeing her anymore. Even if you and Emma are really good friends who talk all the time earlier in the story, the only possible responses show a breathtaking lack of regard for Emma as a human being:
Emily7-couldcareless

And that? Makes me pretty furious. Because I have BEEN the woman surrounded by men who are unable to see me as a person. I’ve been the woman that men call an ignorant judgemental cunt, or a fat jealous lesbian, or who say that I’m raising my daughter to be a dysfunctional lesbian – just because I have opinions they don’t agree with about games. I’ve been the female friend who realizes that her male friend, the friend that she felt close to, never actually cared about her – he just liked having someone around who admired his work and stroked his ego. And I’ve been the woman who had use her relationship status (“taken”) to fend off men she’d rather not speak to. Because I’m not enough of a person to have my wishes respected, but my husband is.

I have a lifetime of experience of being the fake woman, the cardboard cutout, the prop in a man’s self-centered reordering of the universe to be all about him. And maybe it’s completely unfair, but my knee-jerk reaction is that of course only a man could look at how Emily and Emma are presented and see the situation as “charming” or “romantic”, because so many men aren’t used to thinking of women as real people anyhow.

Problem #2: the game is NOT gender neutral

Technically, you can put in any name you want. There’s never any pronouns used, so the protagonist can be any gender the player wants… TECHNICALLY. In practice, however, the game and all the dialogue read as YOU ARE A HETERO DUDE.

doge

I like playing immersively, so I used my name. I also decided that for my first playthrough, I wanted to just be Emily’s friend. And, you know, mostly that worked until about halfway through Chapter 3. Emily is sad about a bad breakup, which has cost her all of her friends – who sided with her ex, and reveals that she used to have feelings for the protagonist.

Which. You know. Nice Guy fantasy. But also, it is the most boringly cliched hetero romance moment ever, that I simply could not take seriously the idea that the protagonist was anything other than a straight dude. Seriously:

Emily3-stars

And look. I get it. The stars are romantic. I, too, have gone for a walk with my beloved and marveled at the stars. They’re large and unfathomable and we are but tiny ephemeral things whose connections will never matter on a cosmic scale. I get it.

But. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a literal retelling of a thing that happens in every other movie about a hetero romance movie ever[1]. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Scott Pilgrim, The Fault in Our Stars, Gregory’s Girl, A Beautiful Mind, My Girl… the list goes on and on.

Anyway, the moment where things go from mildly frustrating to totally fucking gross what the actual fuck just happened here occurs in Chapter 4, in response to events from Chapter 3. Which brings you to:

Problem #3: This game makes you a rapist, then tells you asserting healthy boundaries is JUST AS BAD AS THAT

See, during that conversation in Chapter 3, after Emily reveals that she had feelings for you, she asks if she can come visit you THIS WEEKEND OR NOT AT ALL, and you have several shitty options: 1) say no, you don’t think it would be a good idea, because Emily just told you about her past feelings and she’s coming off a bad breakup, so she can’t visit you AT ALL NEVER EVER. 2) Say “yes you can come visit” with no qualifications 3) Say yes you can come visit, but only as friends.

Because I was trying to play someone who didn’t have a relationship with Emily, I made the most neutral responses that I could when she was revealing her feelings to me, “I didn’t know you felt that way” and “you should have said something”. But when she asked if she could come visit, I said sure! Because she needed support, and in at the beginning it’s established that the two of you are best friends, even if the protagonist is too chickenshit to say it outright. (“You’re my best friend” is one of the things he deletes and corrects.) And sure it meant canceling on plans to do stuff with Emma, but I reasoned we’re all adults and Emma should understand “best friend is in trouble, needs support” – because it’s the compassionate thing to do.

After agreeing to the visit, I even said (the first time around) ‘sure, bring your booze’ when she asks about alcohol, reasoning we’d hang around campus and do shit and just get drunk enough to have fun and feel better about a shitty situation. There have been lots of times where I’ve hung out with friends in shitty situations and got drunk with them to help them feel better.

Which, you know, yay! Until Chapter 4, which opens a year after that visit, with Emily apologizing for not messaging in a while. She says she’s felt weird about things between you, and when pressed responds with the following:
Emily4-didyou

I felt sick. Actually sick. “Of course I didn’t plan that” was the least skeevy response it would let me make, and it was still defensive and not okay. But then it went even further. Emily tells you about how in retrospect, it all seemed so planned. That you introduced her to all your friends, then took her back to your dorm room and got her drunk and you “hooked up”. And she’s felt weird and not okay about it ever since. And no matter what response you make, the protagonist types “you wanted to hook up”, then erases it and replaces it with “I don’t know”.

And THAT? That was like a bucket of cold water. Because “you wanted it” is what rapists tell their victims.

Literally nothing about how Emily describes the situation reads as consensual to me. The defensive responses, the fact that you can even claim to ‘not have noticed’ that things were weird, the fact that your initial impulse is to tell her that she wanted it. This doesn’t read like a misunderstanding between star-crossed lovers. This reads like a woman who is hurt and traumatized by something that she knows wasn’t okay, something that violated her trust in someone that she loved, and she’s trying to confront that without being ready to call what happened to her “rape”. Not yet.

While this whole thing played out, I couldn’t help but remember stories that I’ve heard from other women about having their trust violated by a friend who told them that they wanted it. I’ve heard and read so many stories, so many stories where a woman talks about being raped by a man that she loved and trusted, who told her that she wanted it, and who refused to accept that what he did was not okay when confronted later. And they read uncomfortably close to how this scene plays out. This scene that is supposed to be “romantic”. This scene where you find out that you are a rapist, and it happened offscreen, and you couldn’t do anything about it.

So I went back and replayed it. Made the same choices up to that point, but then told Emily not to bring booze. But that still doesn’t make much difference. You still hook up, things are still weird and wrong, and in dubious consent territory. And this time when Emily calls you on it:

Emily5-vulnerable

YOU SEEMED FINE?

BEFORE SHE VISITED SHE WAS CRYING TO YOU, LITERALLY CRYING ABOUT HER BREAKUP AND HOW SHE HATED EVERYTHING AND HER SCHOOL AND ALL HER FRIENDS HAD DUMPED HER. SO. NO. THAT IS WRONG. “I don’t know” is such a fucking disingenuous response, because the entire situation that led to this visit? The fact that you and Emily talk all the time, and have this long past together? You know. You fucking well KNOW she’s not okay. How could you not?

The only saving grace is that at least this time around it’s not rape, because Emily was sober and capable of consent. But this is some skeevy emotional manipulation bullshit, and then the fact that the protagonist claims ignorance of her emotional state after the fact? No. NO.

I’ve had my body used for the gratification of a man in a situation that I didn’t consent to. I shut down. I froze, I didn’t move or speak. But when I confronted my attacker later, he at least had the grace to be ashamed and own that what he did wasn’t okay and apologize. Because he knew. HE KNEW and he did it anyway, because in that moment what he wanted was more important than my safety.

And I’ve had men gaslight me. Men who I thought were friends and confidants, who turned my world upside down, tried to convince me that I was a monster because I insisted on trying to get them to see themselves in a critical light because I cared about them and wanted them to be better. Men who decided it was better to betray my trust and destroy my confidence in how I saw myself because it wasn’t compatible with them seeing themselves as the HERO OF THEIR OWN STORY.

So yeah. No.

[ahem] So that’s shitty option number 2. What about shitty options #1 (no you can’t visit ever) and #3 (yes you can visit, but only as a friend). Well, if you opt for #1, at the beginning of Chapter 4 Emily mentions that she had a breakdown after you wouldn’t let her visit and blames you for abandoning her in her time of need. Which. I mean. Fine. You know, having Emily be so emotionally fragile that she falls to pieces and goes crazy the instant a man isn’t there to validate her self-worth is shitty, but at least “you said you’d support me and didn’t” is a legitimate grievance, even if the situation that is presented is so stereotypical and gendered that I can’t even.

And if you opt for #3, Chapter 4 opens with Emily berating you about how things will never be okay because you “missed your chance” and “that was the moment” you could have gotten together and YOU BLEW IT. And the anger and recrimination is just as strong in that situation, the situation in which you asserted a healthy boundary and didn’t take advantage of a woman you cared about who was deeply vulnerable, as it is in situation #2 – in which you can become an actual rapist[2].

Because the problem, THE REAL PROBLEM, is that Emily has feelings toward the protagonist that aren’t positive. It doesn’t matter if they arise from a legitimate grievance, or you “not making your move”, or you taking advantage of her and possibly raping her. The outcome is always the same, because the protagonist’s actions don’t matter. What matters is that Emily is rejecting you, and that is the REAL tragedy.

Problem #4: No matter what choices you make, in the end you are always The Sad Nice Guy Abandoned By That Girl Who Should Have Chosen Him Instead

Chapter 5 opens by being the only chapter in which you have to message Emily first to talk to her. And during that conversation, Emily is obviously doing a slow fade. She’s not pulling her weight in the conversation, making terse responses, and not trying to keep it going.

Though of course the one exception to this is when she asks, unprompted, about Emma and the protagonist has the aforementioned hissy fit about how she had to get a new boyfriend and doesn’t spend time with him anymore. And it’s ironic that this, THIS, is perhaps the only thing that the author gets right. That dismissal of Emma as a person who has worth independent of her willingness to satisfy your boner is the moment when Emily shuts down and stops trying. You pepper her with questions about stupid shit. Concerts, summer plans, whatnot, and she gives you the soft rejection. Because that’s what women learn to do with men they have reason to be afraid of, to let them down easy so they don’t get stabbed.

Emily8-goodbye

But even then, he comes at it all wrong – because the tragedy isn’t what a what a sad, miserable human being you are. The tragedy isn’t that you’re an entitled dickmonster incapable of seeing women as real human beings with hopes and dreams and aspirations. The tragedy is supposed to be that you are SAD and CONFUSED and ALONE, and you don’t understand how you could be graduating college WITHOUT A WOMAN. Because our culture PROMISED YOU A WOMAN.

It’s infuriating to play through a game that misses the point so completely that it ends up in an entirely different universe of NOT THE GODDAMN POINT. And it’s disappointing, because honestly – I’ve had friendships fizzle out where one person stopped caring, friendships that have played out over messaging. And it sucks. It hurts, and it’s painful, and it leaves you bewildered and wondering what you did wrong. So that game? That game I would have played and enjoyed. But not this. Never this.

Emily is Away isn’t “touching” or “romantic”. It’s a disturbing highlight of how entitled men feel to women’s time and attention, and how willing men are to dehumanize someone in the pursuit of achieving their own romantic desires.

[1] And before you ask what makes that seem so hetero, looking at the stars is just romantic, right? That might be the case if Hollywood didn’t make the few gay love stories they produce tragic like EVERY GODDAMN TIME. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Brokeback Mountain, Rent, Love is Strange, Carol, Cracks, Aimée & Jaguar, Blue is the Warmest Colour (not death)… you get the idea

It’s pretty fucking impossible to think of a movie about a gay romance that ends happily. …like, to be honest, I’m a movie buff and I literally can’t remember one.

[2] And yeah, I know about Kyle Seeley’s response to Emily Short’s review, in which she raises the issue of ‘um, you are describing rape’. And in that response, he starts by telling Emily ‘she’s wrong’, ‘it’s not rape’. And then he handwaves and says well you know, he’s not saying Emily’s feelings are wrong or whatever. And then he fails to stick the landing with an ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’ nonpology. (“I’m sorry to anyone who interprets the story that way”). So no, if anything he just dug the hole deeper.

Overwatch delivers diversity alongside racist stereotypes, still does better than rest of AAA gaming [LONG]

Overwatch, the hit new shooter/MOBA released by Blizzard has been taking the internet by storm lately. (That is, until the internet collectively lost its damn mind over Pokemon Go this past week[1].) As of mid-June, they had already accumulated more than 10 million active players, no mean feat considering that it was released less than two months ago.

Since the beginning of its development, one of the major talking points that has been emphasized in press pieces is that Blizzard was trying to design with an eye to diversity. Like the piece on Kotaku proclaiming that Blizzard wanted to “do women better”, which showed Widowmaker displaying a whole lot of ass cleavage:

Meanwhile over on Polygon, there was a piece with the headline: “Blizzard wants its diverse fans to feel ‘equally represented’ by Overwatch’s heroes“. Which, by the way, only featured quotes from a press conference given by Blizzard, and which completely failed to mention any of Blizzard’s previous problems with representation in their games to date. (*cough* Hearthstone *cough* Worldofwarcraft *cough*)

I’ve written about Overwatch before. (In fact, people talking trash about my Overwatch posts are still a reliable source of occasional traffic spikes from Reddit, which is a bit surprising two years later.) And the game’s recent release, along with the fact that it seems diversity is still being used as a talking point to promote the game – as evidenced by this piece published just 3 days in advance of the release, made me think that it would probably be worthwhile taking a second look at Overwatch to see how it’s shaped up.

Overwatch Characters and Gender

The last time I wrote about Overwatch, 6 out of the (then) 14 characters that had been announced were female, however, 1 character – Bastion – was genderless. If you don’t count Bastion, that made for a roster that was 46% female – not too shabby. At the game’s release, it featured 8 female characters out of 21 characters that have a gender – which was only 40%. However, as of yesterday, a new female character was announced – Ana – which brings the ratio up to 9 out of 21 gendered characters, or 42%.

icons-gender

So, you know. It’s not fifty-fifty, which is disappointing from a game that says it wanted to “do women better”. How hard would it have been to make one of the weirdo characters, like Winston or Zenyatta, female? And sure, 42% is still a damn site better than almost every game I’ve ever bothered to review numbers for on this blog. But I tend to think that to “do women better”, you should at the very least reflect their levels of representation in the actual world. And we won’t even talk about how there are ugly or weird looking male characters, but all of the female characters except for one are in their mid-20s and have flawless skin – except for Ana. And even then, the only concession to her age is white hair and maaayyybbbbe a hint of an eye wrinkle.

It’s worth noting that all of that completely ignores the issue of queer and nonbinary gender identities. Since the canon doesn’t say otherwise, it has to be assumed that all 21 of the gendered heroes are cisgender, which is – again – disappointing from a game that seems to be trying to sell itself, at least in part, on the diversity of its character’s designs and backgrounds.

But overall, those turned out to be minor irritants compared to the embarrassing levels of racism (with a sprinkling of ableism) in the hero backstories and alternate character designs. Hooray!

Character Backstories

Lucio

So out of a lineup of 22 characters, you have exactly 1 black person – Lucio. And YES I get that there are other characters who are visible minorities – Symmetra, Pharah, Hanzo, etc. But what about McCree and Soldier 76, who are both from the United States? Or Tracer, who is from the UK? Or Widowmaker, who is from France? Or Mercy, who is from Switzerland? All of these are countries with diverse populations! Black people live in all of these countries! Coding all of the Western first world nations as white is problematic as hell. (And no, Widowmaker does not count as a PoC because she’s blue.)

So with all of that in mind, it is doubly problematic that Lucio – the only black guy – is a black guy from the slums. And sure, he’s from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. And sure he was “fighting the man”. But the core concept was “black DJ from the slums who stole things”. And when your go-to backstory for the only black guy is “poor thief”, that is super fucking problematic. The stereotype of black people as thieves and criminals is the reason why real actual black people get profiled by police and followed in shops and stores. And the fact that the video games industry is more than 87% white makes all of this even more problematic.

So. You know. What the actual fuck, Blizzard?

Reaper

Similarly, Gabriel Reyes AKA Reaper is the only Latino in the game (you know, despite the fact that it actually would have made more sense to make McCree Latino instead of making him white). And what’s his backstory? Well, according to the Overwatch wiki:

Reaper admits to being a high-functioning psychopath, having a passion for murder and vengeance and is willing to kill even without a solid motivation. —Overwatch Wiki

And this is shitty for pretty much exactly the same reasons that making Lucio a black thief from the slums is shitty. When news coverage of Latin@s is 1% of total coverage, despite the fact that they make up 13% of the US population? And 66% of that coverage is about Latinos as criminals? Making THE ONLY LATINO in your game an actual fucking psychopathic murderer is shitty and racist.

Symmetra

Symmetra’s backstory and concept doesn’t read as racist to me, although I’ll admit to not being conversant enough with those particular stereotypes to be able to spot something that’s not completely obvious. However, where her backstory does fall down is a WHOLE LOT OF FUCKING ABLEISM. And sure, it’s obvious that it’s at least well-meaning ableism? But there is a lot of hinky mental health and neurotypical stereotyping going on. Again, according to the Overwatch Wiki:

Symmetra may be on the autism spectrum as implied in A Better World[1]. In it, she says it used to “bother her” when people would ask where she fit on the spectrum; further, she appears to have what could be described as obsessive-compulsive disorder, namely her preoccupation with “perfection”, such as when she can’t resist fixing a crooked picture or how she notices the perfection of a child’s face. Traits common to OCD are also associated with autism.[2] —Overwatch Wiki

For fuck’s sake.

First, if you want to have a character who is on the autism spectrum, EITHER DO IT OR DON’T. Don’t say well she miiiiiiight be, but then maaaaaybe not. Because what the fuck is wrong with having a heroic character who is autistic? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Second, fixing crooked frames or noticing a perfect face isn’t OCD – unless you spend your entire day checking and re-checking and re-checking every picture frame to make sure it’s straight, or obsessively scanning people’s faces looking for flaws, to the detriment of actually getting anything done. OCD is an anxiety spectrum disorder, emphasis on the disorder. If it doesn’t interfere with your daily life and ability to function, then it’s not OCD. Being particular about how things are placed or wanting things to be just so? That’s not fucking OCD, and it’s really shitty trivializing OCD that way.

Character Designs: Racist Tropes and Culture as Costume

Mercy

So I’ve written before about how it’s really problematic making the character who is coded as “angel” blonde. But you know what’s even shittier? Making your angel character blonde, then having an alternate skin named “Devil” and giving that skin black hair.

Not following why that’s problematic? Well, allow me to quote myself:

Here’s another one I wish I didn’t see as often as I did. If you’re writing a race that has inborn magic powers, immortality, supernatural sexiness, preternatural senses, or is otherwise superior to normal boring humans, DON’T have the defining trait of that race be a real world racial trait.

Wait. No. I’m going to be more explicit.

DON’T MAKE THEM BLONDE. Because that is some creepy white supremacy shit right there – ESPECIALLY when combined with the Evil Darkies [aka: the trope of making evil races have dark skin] mentioned above.

That’s not to say you can’t have superhumans! … you can keep 100% of your magical superhumans and still have them not suck. Case in point, World of Warcraft. The good elves are purple and the bad elves are blonde. (Granted, there’s still an awwwwwful lot of fail of just about all types in WoW. But this is, at least, one small thing that they did manage to get right.)

When you tie the idea of “good” to traits that are White and “evil” to traits that are Not-White, THAT IS RACIST.

Mercy-angel-devil

The irony is that Mercy’s other alternate skins depict her as a Valkyrie, which honestly I like about a million times better than either her default skin or her “Devil” skin. Boobplate aside, they did a great job of translating the character concept into a design appropriate to the character’s cultural background.

Zenyatta, Roadhog, and Pharah

Zenyatta is a bit of a tricky case in that he is a robot (who is gendered as male) monk who is never explicitly called out as being a Buddhist monk. But his backstory says he wanders the Himalayas, and the Saffron robes as well as descriptions of Zenyatta’s approach to philosophy make it pretty clear that he is supposed to be a Tibetan Buddhist (robot) monk. And, you know what, cool. There could be some cool elements about robots deciding to investigate humanity and ending up identifying as a particular gender and culture.

What is definitely uncool is tying Zenyatta strongly (if implicitly) to one culture, and then using other cultural costumes as alternate looks:

Zenyatta

Look. This is a theme that I’m going to come back to for the next few designs, but I would think that after the stink that gets raised on the internet and social media every October, people would start getting the hint that using cultural attire or cultural dress for the sake of looking “cool” is not okay. Culture is not costume.

This gets even more problematic when Native and Aboriginal cultures are the ones being used as costume, because there is a global history of white people oppressing Native and Aboriginal peoples and then appropriating their culture.

Take Roadhog, whose has two alternate skins that show him in Maori dress:

Roadhog-Maori

And. Man. Here’s where I admit that things get real fuzzy and hard to tease out. Because while it’s not commented on officially, it’s possible that Mako is of Maori descent:

“It is highly likely that Roadhog is of New Zealand Maori heritage due to his real name (Mako) and alternate skin titled “Toa” which is the Maori word for “Warrior”.” – Overwatch Wiki

And honestly, I keep going back and forth on whether this is problematic or not. Roadhog’s pale skin reads more “white” than “Maori” to me. But then, the long struggle of Metis and non-status Native Canadians to be recognized as “legitimately Native”, makes me feel like that might not be a valid criticism. Except, Roadhog is said to come from the Outback of Australia – and the Aborigine people of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand are two different peoples – or at least as far as I’m aware.

So. I think for me the tipping point, the deciding factor of “is this okay?” is the fact that there are so many other examples of stereotyped depictions and appropriative costumes. This isn’t a singular misstep in a game that otherwise did its homework and tried to be respectful. Because if it was, you wouldn’t have something like Pharah and her alternate skins:

Farah

Pharah is explicitly, canonically Egyptian. And yet two of her alternate skins are explicitly North American Native – titled “Raindancer” and “Thunderbird”. And that is just such an obvious, straight-forward case of “what do we do for a cool alternate look for Pharah?” “I dunno, make her Native?” that I just can’t even.

Symmetra

And here’s the last example, the reason why I’m really not inclined to give the Blizzard development team a lot of slack on the question of “did they mean to be offensive” or not. Symmetra, who comes from India, has two alternate skins – which cost a lot of credits to unlock – that depict her as the Hindu goddess Kali:

Symmetra-goddess

It’s hard to overstate how gallingly tasteless and appalling this is. Hinduism isn’t like the worship of the ancient Egyptian gods. While using Ra as a skin for an implicitly Tibetan character is tasteless, it’s nowhere near on the same level of awful, because you’re talking about a dead religion. There are somewhere around 1 billion Hindu people on the planet, which makes this roughly equivalent to having a male character who can “level up” into Jesus. And obviously, game developers would never consider making Actual Fucking Jesus an unlockable skin, because that would be disrespectful. But because Hindus are mostly brown people, that makes having Actual Fucking Kali – who is a god that real actual people actually worship right now – somehow okay? No. Just. NO.

Conclusion: Overwatch has problems, but it’s still better than the rest of AAA gaming

As horrible as all this stuff is, Blizzard at least gets the absolute minimum of points for trying. Which is something that the rest of the AAA game industry is emphatically not doing, as evidenced by yet another year of Scowly McWhiteGuy being mostly the only thing on offer at E3.

SO. MANY. WHITE GUYS.

So. You know. Reluctant kudos for trying? But “slightly less racist than the rest of the AAA game industry” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement that Blizzard should be proud of.

[1] I am unspeakably bitter that Pokemon Go has yet to be released in Canada

E3 2016: Female-character-led games still WAY MORE INTERESTING

Last week I happened to see this piece from The Mary Sue about the disappointing numbers of games previewed at this year’s E3 that featured playable female characters. In it, TMS’ Jessica Lachenal expressed disappointment in the disparity between the relatively high number of games previewed last year at E3 that featured playable female characters and the seemingly lower numbers of such games this year:

After digging through the E3 2016 announcements for Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Ubisoft, Bethesda, and EA, I’ve only been able to count six games that feature either exclusively playable female characters, the choice to play as a female character, or a segment involving playing as a female character. This is a significant drop from E3 2015, where the illustrious Sam Maggs found 23 games that featured female playable characters. Seven of those games only offered female playable characters, as Feminist Frequency pointed out. — The Six Games at E3 2016 Featuring Female Playable Characters, Jessica Lachenal

To go from 23 down to six seemed like such a puzzling drop that it got me wondering. Were there really only six games featuring playable female characters being previewed at E3?

Let’s look at some (general) numbers (remember, these are approximations):

Happily, there were actually a good deal more than that! However, in order to come by this information, I had to dig up this list from IGN of all games featured at this year’s E3, at which point I did some perfunctory Googling of each game on the list to determine (as best I could with no more than five minutes per game) numbers and genders of protagonists.

Because this list was HUGE, I decided that I would not bother counting anything that was an “open world” game – which seems to be the new term for MMOs that aren’t RPGs, racing games – which are about vehicles more than people, and fighting games – because fighting games’ issues with gender are a phenomenon unto themselves, and remasters of existing games – because that’s just cheating. (Most of the games that I eliminated were open world games, although remasters were a close second.) If you look at all games previewed, there were 27 games featuring playable female characters, as opposed to 43 games which did not have playable female characters:

e3-games
You can find the spreadsheet this came from here, if that’s more readable for you

Granted, the point made in the TMS piece stands – fully 5 of the 27 games were games that were announced for the first time at last year’s E3. It’s also worth noting that more than half of games with playable female characters offer those characters alongside 1 or more male characters. And a large number of those games offer only 1 woman and multiple male characters. Additionally, Battlefield 1 makes the list, since it will have one sequence with a playable female character, while the rest of the game will feature only men. However, since it contains a playable female character, that’s enough to get it to count.

So while 27 to 43 doesn’t look like that bad of a ratio when you look at the numbers, things get a lot more depressing when you look at games with only 1 protagonist. There are only 11 games with a sole female protagonist, as opposed to 33 games with sole male protagonists! Even more depressing than the gender imbalance is the fact that SO. GODDAMN. MANY. of the dude characters that are headlining these games are just MORE OF THE SAME and represent ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NOTHING NEW:

dudezBecause what gaming is more of the exact same protagonist that they have been serving us over and over and OVER for the last several decades. Please, I would like someone to tell me how I’m supposed to care about YET ANOTHER installation of The Adventures of Scowly GrizzledFace McSquareJaw and His Continuing Journeys In the Land of Heterosexual Mostly Whiteness. Because at this point, I’m pretty much at the same point with this shit as I am with Spiderman reboots. IT WAS GREAT THE FIRST TWO DOZEN TIMES BUT I’M NOT DOING IT AGAIN. I’M NOT. I DON’T CARE , YOU CAN’T MAKE ME.

Seriously, the offering of nearly identical grizzled (mostly) white guys with the same damn stories and the same damn motivations pursuing the same damn goals in the same damn environments… it’s just… BORING. BORING BORING BOOOOORING.

Contrast this with the female characters on offer. Even though there are many fewer of them, and they still skew overly white, young, and “pretty”, the variety still manages to be so much more interesting and compelling:

E3-wimminz

Here you see women who are white, black, Asian, and Middle Eastern. Old women, young girls, and in between. Soldiers and magicians, mechanics and rogues. And more than their visual dissimilarity, their goals and motivations are different. You have women trying to survive, trying to save someone they love, trying to make a new home and new way of life. Women trying to become masters of a martial art, women seeking action and adventure, and women looking to wrestle the Fates themselves.

All of which are WAY MORE INTERESTING than killing things with guns, regretting That One Woman You Couldn’t Save, having sex with women you don’t care about, and staring broodingly into the middle distance. I’ve been playing video games since I was six years old, and I’m fucking tired of seeing the same stories over and over again. As a consumer, pretty much the best way that you can guarantee that I won’t buy your product ever is to not include female protagonists.

And shit, you can still have pretty much ALL OF THAT Beardy McScowlpants crap in a game and still get me to like it if you actually have a female character worth playing. Joel from The Last of Us is one of the most stereotypical exemplars of the ScruffyBeard McFridgedDaughter trope ever, and I still wound up yelling my excitement about how goddamn good that game was over the course of several posts.

But, alas, given the continuing reluctance of AAA publishers to include playable female characters in their games, it looks like I’m going to be complaining about all the unoriginal Scowly White Dudes in AAA games for some time to come.

Pathfinder Art (Part 3): What… I… Just… No.

[Notes: Some problems with my language were pointed out, and I have some made some revisions accordingly. WRT calling Roma “gypsys”, that was my bad. I knew better. As far as “heebie jeebies”, that was something I wasn’t aware of as being a problem.]

In my last post, I did an analysis of art from a few Pathfinder books to look at the differences in how men and women are portrayed, and how that sheds light on sexist trends that are present in Pathfinder art. This post was done according to my usual methods, and you can find a whole lot more such posts by searching the numbers tag here on my blog.

Now, numbers will only take you so far – which is why today’s post will look in some pretty extreme depth at art in these books and why saying simply “the art in the three books I examined displayed clearly sexist trends” is, if anything, understating the matter. I’ll be talking about specific issues with the artwork in order of increasing awfulness, from “ick, really?” to “what the actual fuck, gross”.

(And as always, click through the images for a view with more detail)

Gross Trend #1: The prevalence of sexualized character design

Because it’s supported by the numbers that were gathered, I can say that “in the NPC Codex and Inner Sea World Guide … women were about twice as likely to be suggestively attired as their male counterparts”. But that statement alone doesn’t really convey the sheer stupidity of so many of these pieces of artwork, where the spec obviously called for “heroic avatar” and the artist, instead, turned in “hurr hurr tits”.

The least offensive example I have of this is boobplate, which was depressingly prevalent:

Boobplate
These are just the MOST INFURIATING examples of boobplate, btw. I had a depressing variety to choose from. (Click for larger view)

I don’t think it’s necessary for me to cover yet again why boobplate with individual boob pods, or boobplate with a boob window is a terrible fucking idea[1]. But I think it’s worth pointing out that the Haughty Avenger’s boob window is actually one of the least offensive (in my opinion) of the images that I picked out. The Ice Maiden, with her Madonna-esque metal brassiere over her armor, strikes me as being just as gross, despite not actually being able to see any skin. The Tribal Champion and Bloodfire Sorceror are similarly frustrating, given that they also have metal boob pods over other armor – although theirs at least aren’t cone-shaped. And the Heir Apparent… [facepalm]

The Heir Apparent is possibly the worst drawing of boobplate I have ever seen, which is impressive, because I’ve been writing this blog a long time and have looked at A LOT of really bad art. First of all, her breastplate seems to also double as a corset, judging by the otherwise impossible narrowness of her torso and waist. More important, however, is the fact that her armor’s boob pods are distended and lemon-shaped, which… you know… just… no. Breasts can be shaped like a lot of things! They’re all different! But NEVER distended protruding lemons, because that’s just not how gravity works. So the stupidity of drawing protruding-lemon boobplate is just staggering.

But of course, boobplate isn’t the only kind of frustratingly sexist character design. That comes in a wide variety of flavors!

StupidOutfits

A spear and shield fighter who doesn’t wear any goddamn pants! A huntress who punches things with magic fire (?) while wearing a bra and hot pants! A cleric who dual wields crossbows while wearing a drab-colored evening gown that require a lot of garment tape to prevent wardrobe malfunction! An embarrassingly racist Asian elf whose leotard is meant to be sexy but mostly looks like an adult diaper! A lizard person with tits in a bustier[2]! Boobplate is just one tool in an artist’s stupid sexualization tool kit! The number of ways that a female character can be reduced from “heroic avatar” to “sexual object” are almost limitless!

[facepalm]

It’s worth noting that this sort of thing can get unintentionally hilarious when you have a particularly egregious example of sexualization in the same 2-page spread as a male cover that is completely covered from wrist to neck to ankle:

DumbestSpreads

[siiiiiiiggghhhhh]

Gross Trend #1a: Impossible breasts

The fact that so many artists insist on needlessly sexualizing the women they draw wouldn’t be nearly so infuriating if they bothered to put in the least bit of effort into understanding 1) how breasts work 2) how gravity works 3) how breasts and gravity work in combination with each other. Breasts are sacs of flesh and fat that hang from the pectoral muscles. This means that they hang down and slightly away from one another. BREASTS DO NOT HAVE THEIR OWN GRAVITY. They don’t pull themselves into perfect spheres. They don’t magnetically stick together to form cleavage without a garment providing A LOT of structure. And gravity pulls them DOWNWARD. Which is why all of the following is just plain inexcusable:

DumbestBoobs

No. No no no NO. The only one of these that is even CLOSE to correct is the halfling on the far right, and even then her breasts are doing some uncanny valley shit where they’re close to correct, but just wrong enough that they’re giving me the heebie jeebies willies.

Sadly, even when artists manage to get the structure of breasts right, they often fail to consider how breasts + gravity will interact with the clothing being worn. For example, while the following images actually manage to not screw up the actual breasts (too much), all of them would be a hot mess the instant any of these women tried to actually do anything:

FabricTape

The Battle Skald’s outfit is the most practical/realistic of these trainwrecks, but even that isn’t saying much. With no underwire or other supportive structure, the fact that only two stitches hold the two halves of her top together means that she’d get maybe a few swings of that axe in before having some severe wardrobe difficulties. As for the Undead Slayer, I will at least give the artist points for structuring her outfit such that they managed to have visible underboob without having to worry about areola or nipples[3]. However, the Undead Slayer, the Vivisectionist Cleric, and the Seductive Enchantress will find themselves popping right out of their tops, because BREASTS ARE AFFECTED BY GRAVITY. Without a structuring top like a corset or supportive bra, breasts move around a lot.

There’s also the issue that AREOLA EXIST – covering the nipple doesn’t render them magically invisible. Further, NIPPLES ARE THINGS THAT HAVE THREE DIMENSIONS. They are protruding fleshy bits! So there should absolutely be nipple showing through both the Vivisectionist Cleric’s and Seductive Enchanter’s “tops”.

Tl;dr, LEARN HOW BREASTS WORK. The internet has a wealth of examples you can learn from.

Gross Trend #2: Women aren’t heroes

As I pointed out in my last post:

…when looking at the Inner Sea World Guide … 34% of all women can be said to fit into a class archetype – which is ALL KINDS OF DEPRESSING when you consider how incredibly underrepresented women are in the Inner Sea World Guide as a whole. There are vast swathes of the book where there are no women at all, and when women DO show up, fucking TWO THIRDS OF THEM aren’t even heroes or adventurers. They’re fucking barmaids, peasants, princesses, and slaves – which is some creepy woman-erasing misogynistic bullshit.

That alone is bad enough! But even worse is the fact that A LOT of these non-heroic women are also objectified. Most women can’t be heroes, but they can be sexy barmaids?

Barmaid

And sexy slaves. And sexy princesses. And sexy human sacrifice victims (more on that in a bit). Welcome to Golarion! Where the men are heroes and the women are fuckable! …which is fucking horrific when you consider the overall lack of women in the books in the first place. [brr]

Gross Thing #3: Quotas and Interchangeable Women

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the major problems with representation in the books I examined was the fact that so many group scenes contained only 1 woman. This is pretty aggravating when the lone woman is shown as a hero or other avatar figure, but when they’re shown as something else, things can get pretty gross.

Take, for example, these examples – in which the ratio of male figures to lone female figures was particularly egregious: 

Only1

In the left image and the bottom right, the lone women in the scene are at least shown as heroes. But in the top right, our lone woman is shown as an imminent victim of human sacrifice, which is just all kinds of wrong! Apparently the answer to “where are all the women in Golarion” is WE MURDERED THEM?

But then, it’s not like any of this is entirely surprising given that women are so entirely unimportant that they are completely interchangeable. After all, one sexy woman is as good as another, right?

Sameface

There were no less than six pieces in the Inner Sea World Guide by the same artist of ostensibly different women who had the same damn face. Because who cares about depicting women as individuals with their own unique characteristics and attributes? Really all that matters is that they’re sexy, and so long as that requirement is fulfilled, they can be assigned a generic face. That’s the bit that no one cares about (as long as it’s sufficiently aesthetically pleasing), because sometimes words come out of it and that’s gross.

…obviously I’m being sarcastic here, but sameface syndrome is something you almost always only see in illustrations of female characters. And it’s something that I would expect an art director to be more on top of, when dealing with a large number of images from the same artist.

Gross Trend #4: Embarrassingly Racist Art

Last, but most certainly not least, was the distressing prevalence of racist art. Starting with CODING ALL OF YOUR BARBARIANS AS CRYPTO-NATIVES:

Racist

NO. NO NO NO. NO.

“Barbarian” is literally just another way of saying “savage”:

barbarian

The stereotype of Native peoples as savage devils is one of the most pernicious, destructive, racist stereotypes out there. It directly led to the genocide of Native peoples by colonialist forces, the establishment of the Canadian residential school system – which was only shut down in 1996, as well as a legacy of racism and structural injustice for natives. So coding Barbarians as Native is bad, but making a subset of those Barbarians a CANNIBALISTIC EVIL MATRIARCHY??? NO. Just. NO.

Sadly, I wish I could say these were the only example of gross racism, but… no:

MoarRacist

Oh good. A sexy gypsy Roma – a trope almost as gross as “savage” Natives – and evil crypto-Arabs. (There are A LOT of game products that even call them “gypsies”, which at least Pathfinder didn’t do – since “gypsy” is an actual ethnic slur.)

That’s nice. At least the racism is well rounded.

In Conclusion

I parted ways with D&D quite a while ago after discovering indie table top games – not because indie games are “better” per se. But because the complexity and crunch of D&D and other systems like it or derived from it, as is the case with Pathfinder, just didn’t do it for me. But even if that were the case, I don’t think I would feel comfortable picking up these books, or recommending Pathfinder to someone just getting into games for the first time – because this is the kind of shit that makes me embarrassed to be a gamer.

[1] If you’re struggling with “why is boobplate bad”, then this probably isn’t the blog for you.

[2] LIZARDS SHOULDN’T EVER HAVE TITS. THEY ARE NOT MAMMALS. YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.

[3] Because nipples WILL be visible through a lot of fabrics

Pathfinder Adventures app: Okay gameplay and terrible art

[Before I start: I know there’s been a large gap between posts. This started as a 1-off post and spiraled into something that will be a series of 2 or 3 posts, since I got a bit carried away doing research and gathering material for this. I’m going to do my best to get another post up before the end of the week, if not two more. Thanks for your patience.]

I follow a lot of folks who enjoy Pathfinder, so when the new digital/app version of their Pathfinder card game – Pathfinder Adventure – launched, my feed saw several re-posts of announcements of the launch. I usually don’t tend to hop on the bandwagon of new games quite so quickly (remember how it took me six months after the last chapter of Life is Strange was released to actually finish it?), but it just so happens that I was bored with my latest mobile game of choice and was looking for something new to play.

So I decided that I would check it out to see what it was like; I had vague thoughts that maybe when I’d played enough of it to get a feel for the basics I could write a post comparing it to Hearthstone, since that’s a digital card game whose art I have written about hating WITH A PASSION.

[Sidebar: concerning the buggy UI]

Despite the fact that this is not a review, but rather an examination of artwork used, I would be remiss if I did not mention the many issues that I had trying to play this game. The gameplay itself was solidly designed, which shouldn’t be surprising as it was based on the pre-existing Pathfinder Adventure card game. However, the app would have been a lot more fun if it weren’t for the absolutely terrible UI.

Seriously, in addition to being completely opaque (I frequently found myself with absolutely no fucking clue of what I needed to do to advance to the next screen, with no tool-tip having been given), it was also horrifically buggy. The Pathfinder Adventure app was designed for tablets, but I often had to touch something multiple times to get it to respond, and dragging things anywhere on the screen was even worse.

So if what I say about the terrible art doesn’t turn you off playing, and you’d be interested in playing a card-based adventuring game that is reasonably entertaining and can be played for free, definitely check it out. But wait another month or two until it’s been adequately patched, because only the fact that I wanted to write about it for my blog kept me motivated to keep suffering through all of the terrible UI issues.

[/Sidebar]

I went into this wanting to know how the Pathfinder Adventures app would compare to Hearthstone, and I have to say that the loading screen didn’t exactly fill me with a lot of hope:

Main screen

God dammit, Wayne Reynolds.

Amusingly, I was pretty sure that this piece of art was one that I had seen before; I remembered it as being on a banner, which I hate, that I’ve seen at the Reaper Miniatures booth at GenCon every year. But it turns out that that piece of art is completely different trainwreck by Wayne Reynolds (scroll down, it’s about halfway through the post) which shows the same two characters fighting a dragon, not goblins. But just like this piece of art, it still features huge amounts of sideboob and a basically naked ass on Seoni.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Except, no. Wait. This loading screen is why we can’t have nice things:

Loading Screen

That’s right,  everything but a goblin and Seoni’s completely unrealistic sideboob has been cropped out, because really what could convey the essence of the Pathfinder Adventures app better than a goblin and a half-naked sorceress? And this is the same loading screen you have to look at every time something is loading. So if you’re going to play the game, I hope you like looking at the side of badly rendered tits, because you’re going to be looking at this a lot. (Especially with the game’s unpredictable and sometimes long loading times.)

And apparently, the developers felt the need to re-use the same piece of art a THIRD time as one of the locations during one of the scenarios – by which point I was getting heartily sick of this bullshit Wayne Reynolds pile of hot garbage:

Awful Seoni Wallpaper2

And the worst part is, this isn’t even the only piece of Seoni fanservice garbage that gets used as a location background in the course of the first two story adventures! Later in the second adventure, I encountered this piece of location art and promptly facepalmed:

Seoni awful wallpaper

What the actual fuck? Why does EVERY GODDAMN PICTURE of Seoni need to contain sideboob? And what the hell is she doing with her staff? Is she fighting the monster or pole-dancing at it? How am I supposed to take this game at all seriously?

And unfortunately, it’s not just the location artwork that features frustratingly awful cheesecake fanservice. One of the early scenarios in story mode featured a main villain that looked like this:

Erylium

WHY. WHY DO FANTASY ARTISTS INSIST ON PUTTING BREASTS ON REPTILES?? If you have a character that is a bipedal reptile, to the point that they have scales and non-mammalian features like wings, horns, and crests, DON’T FUCKING GIVE THEM BREASTS. JUST. DON’T. Hell, there is an entire world of animals to choose from where I would accept more than two breasts as anatomically valid. Cats, for example. Cat-women could have anywhere between four and eight breasts, and while I would question your taste for feeling like you needed to illustrate something with eight breasts, at least you wouldn’t be abusing the limits of good sense.

And of course, it should go without saying that the contrast between the female villains and henchfolk is… well… stark:

Scenario henchmen

I don’t think I saw a single piece of card or location art in the first two story adventures that showed a man that was anything less than completely covered, and yet the women all came in varying flavors of cleavage, sideboob, underboob, and combinations of all three. What the fuck am I supposed to make of Lyrie’s outfit? Is double-sided garment tape just a standard part of every female adventurer’s kit in the Pathfinder universe? Does double-sided garment tape come imbued with significant bonuses to armor class? Or maybe with auto charges of cure spells or resurrection? Because I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would wear that outfit to do anything other than be in porn, and even then the setup required for that outfit looks like it would be way more trouble than it’s worth.

And because the artists want to make sure there are enough awful outfits and badly-rendered breasts to go around, there are lots of spell cards with cringe-tastic artwork too! Like these examples here:

Spell Cards

Unless the mage on the Guidance card is using dangerously sticky double-sided tape, there’s no way that that top wouldn’t just pop right off both of her breasts, and I don’t know about you but I don’t exactly relish the thought of charging into battle in the middle of a snowy plain with my tits just flapping in the wind. By a similar token, the outfit depicted on Inflict isn’t quite as bad, but that gigantic furry cloak is definitely at odds with the completely bared midriff. Wouldn’t it just be easier to put on a shirt that covered your whole torso instead of vastly overcompensating for not being adequately clothed? Lastly, while Force Missile deserves an honorable mention for being irritatingly deprotagonizing. If Pathfinder Adventures is about badass adventurers fighting monsters and being awesome, why does the art on this card look like she should be hopping up on a chair and yelling for someone to please squish the awful monster for her?

And sometimes, the villain card, the location card, and the story portrait come together to form one incredible hot mess of WTF-ness, as with Nualia – the supposed big-bad of an entire adventure:

Nualia

I’m sorry, but, what? I mean, boobplate is one thing, but what the hell is this? Her armor has individual boob-pods while leaving all of her stomach uncovered? And what the hell is with the skeletal hands as shoulder armor? And the bafflingly square gorget that protects her neck from all angles while, again, LEAVING ALL OF HER VITAL ORGANS EXPOSED? What the crapping crap??

So is Pathfinder Adventures as awful in its artwork as Hearthstone? It’s hard for me to compare, given that I played only six or so hours of Pathfinder Adventures, as opposed to a few hundred of Hearthstone. My impression is that overall it seems to do better, but given the baseline level of awful that Blizzard habitually occupies, saying Pathfinder Adventures isn’t “as bad” as something made by Blizzard is damning it with faint praise.

[Next time: How does the Pathfinder app compare to art in Pathfinder books?]

Fuckable female robots in video games – a timeline [LARGE][maybe-NSFW]

Recently, my brother sent me a screenshot from a MOBA in development – Paragon – of a female android character named Muriel. When I saw it, I promptly headdesked:

Paragon_Muriel.0.0

I was furious. Furious! ROBOT CAMEL TOE?? THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS! Which is what I yelled at Twitter, only to be promptly reminded that Mass Effect had gotten there previously, with EDI – a fact that I had forgotten because the very first thing I made EDI do was PUT ON SOME GODDAMN CLOTHES.

That got me thinking about female androids, and video gaming’s problem with wanting them to always be fuckable. So I started doing some digging, and Wikipedia handily provided me with a list of fictional female robots in video games! Huzzah! A lot of them I had heard of, but there were a lot that I hadn’t, and… jeez. Some of them are really bad. I struggled for a bit on how to actually present what I came up with, until I just decided to arrange them all in chronological order. So I plunked my screenshots into Illustrator and promptly… uh… got a bit carried away:

Timeline
CLICK THROUGH FOR MORE READABLE VERSION

(Note that some results from the Wikipedia list have been omitted. I chose not to include characters from visual novels, since those feel like their own distinct thing. I also, FOR THE LIFE OF ME, could not find any screenshots of the character from Doreamon worth using.)

Now because this is me, while I was staring at all of these screenshots of (mostly) incredibly sexualized character designs, I started wondering exactly how I could quantify “bad” for the purposes of determining the overall level of badness. After all, when going through the Female Armor BINGO, a lot of the points like “how does it attach” or “almost naked for an adventure in a cold climate” don’t really apply to characters that are robots. So instead, I compiled a “hierarchy of sins” (to steal a term from Dogs in the Vineyard) of sexualization, starting with things that represent not being sexualized at all (“Nonhumanoid”, “Humanoid, fully covered”) and going all the way to totally objectified (“actually naked”, “camel toe”).

Then I went through for each character I plotted on the timeline and counted the highest criteria that they met on the “hierarchy”, at which point I made some loose categorizations to see what would happen, and I got this:

androids

I realize statistics don’t mean as much when you invent the criteria and kind of half-ass the definitions, but two thirds of the designs counted are at least moderately sexualized, and only 18% of the designs weren’t sexualized at all. So, you know. SURPRISE! Most female android characters in video games are sexualized! What a shock!

Next time, I’ll write about something equally surprising. Like, character creation in RPGs is important, or video games require an input device in order to play them.

Inside industry sexism: Q&A with a former female BioWare employee

First: How this came about

Last month, I wrote a post about the lack of options to play fat female characters in video games. The genesis of that post came from the fact that I’d recently started playing Star Wars: The Old Republic again, and was irritated all over again that you could play a fat male character, but the fattest female character option looked like… well… me. (And despite what internetbros like to tell me, I am definitely not fat.)
In the comments on that post, Leslee commented about one aspect of her experience as a former BioWare employee who had briefly worked on SW:TOR:
I worked at Bioware-Austin on SWTOR, and I know exactly why there is no option for a fat female character. When I worked there (2010-2011) the ratio of male to female employees was so bad that they converted one of the women’s restrooms to a third men’s room to accommodate all of the guys. (I cursed under my breath every time I had to hike all the way across the entire building to use the bathroom.)

There wasn’t a single female artist on the animation team (that I remember).

At the age of 43, I was one of the oldest employees who wasn’t a manager. ALL of upper management was male.

When the majority of a studio’s entire creative team is young (under 30) and male, the potential for realistic representation in female characters is significantly decreased.

Since Leslee volunteered to answer further questions, I contacted her privately to talk about the possibility of doing a Q&A about her experiences – since it’s not often that I get to see an honest account of what it’s like dealing with industry sexism as a female games industry worker. What follows are my questions and her answers about her experiences in the video games industry.

(Full disclosure, I have Leslee’s permission to make this a patron-supported post. In fact, I initially proposed doing this as a freebie.)

Q&A

How long did you/have you worked in the games industry? (Are you currently working in games now, or did you switch fields?)

I spent about a year, total, working in the games industry.  First at Bioware-Austin, then at Stoic.  Both were short-term contract positions that were problematic for a variety of reasons. Sadly, after these experiences I decided that the games industry was not a good career choice for me at this stage of my life and I retired shortly thereafter.

What was it like working in such a male-dominated environment? Were your supervisors supportive of your concerns, or did you feel you would get penalized for voicing your honest opinions?

The honest answer to the first question is: tiring.  I’ve spent the majority of my adult life working in male-dominated fields. I spent 4 years on active duty in the Army. A year doing contract archaeology. 7 years working as a land surveyor and autocad operator.  I’ve been the only woman – in the field or in the office – more times than I can count. So on my first day at Bioware, as I take a tour of the building and see the disproportionate amount of male heads sitting behind monitors (at that time it was at least 90% male), my immediate reaction was, “Ugh. Not again.”  So, what was it like working in such a male-dominated environment?  Annoying, disappointing, tiring, and way too damn familiar.

Were my supervisors supportive of my concerns?  Well, that probably would have depended upon which one of them I asked. During the later part of my time at Bioware I had 3 different bosses at the same time (all men, of course), and it was never entirely clear as to who was my direct supervisor.  Since they frequently contradicted each other, I never bothered to express my concerns to any of them. It didn’t seem worth my time.  There was also the issue of age and experience. I was considerably older than 2 of my 3 supervisors and that factored heavily into my lack of confidence in their managerial abilities.

Did you ever experience harassment or any other sort of gender-based discrimination, or did you hear of instances of it happening within the company? How were such complaints generally handled?

I didn’t experience harassment. I experienced prejudice, bias, condescension and devaluing. I often felt that I was discounted because of my gender.  During my second week on the job a friendly but utterly clueless coworker said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but since you’re a woman, how much experience do you actually have playing video games?” (He was a bit taken aback by my answer of, “…since the Ford administration”.) One coworker became openly hostile to me when he discovered (accidentally) that I was being paid $2 more an hour than he was.  Another, who had initially been friendly and helpful towards me, became distinctly unhelpful and dismissive after discovering that I was married.  One of the programmers refused to respond to any of my email questions, despite the fact that Ineeded his answers in order to complete my own work. I finally had to enlist a sympathetic project manager (also male) to intercede on my behalf and get the information I needed. He literally dragged the programmer over to my desk and forced him to answer my questions!

I was never aware of any overt sexual harassment toward my fellow female coworkers. The few times that I had the opportunity to speak to any of them (usually in the bathroom), our collective attitude was one of long-suffering weariness and exasperation.

Did you ever try to speak out against issues of sexism within the company? If so, how did that go over? If not, why not?

Oh yes. I did not hesitate to point out the fact that I was almost ALWAYS the only woman at every meeting I attended.  Or to speak up whenever I heard someone make a sexist comment at me, or near me.  For the most part, the reaction I got for my overt feminism was begrudging recognition followed by some variation of “That’s just the way it is in the gaming industry.” I think a lot of people knew it was a problem, but they saw it as an intractable one.  To be honest, after the years of blatant sexual harassment that I suffered while working in construction, what I experienced in the gaming industry felt tame by comparison.  It was still annoying as hell, but at least no one was groping my ass.

After BioWare, what was it like jumping into a tiny, bootstrapped startup?
 
After Bioware I briefly worked for Stoic, a game studio created by 3 ex-Bioware employees.  This was also a problematic work environment, but for slightly different reasons. I was the only woman in an office of 6 people, and our “office” was a shack that was part of a historic farmers market located behind a bar. We called it the Goat Shack.  It had no running water, but plenty of dirt, dust and dead roaches. Once we lost electricity for a day because a (probably intoxicated) patron from the bar had accidentally hit the front of our office with their car the night before, taking out our electrical box.

I think that on some level my coworkers derived a sense of pride by working in such “rustic” conditions, as if it was a testament to their frugality as a startup, or to their dedication to the project. But having already spent time in the military, I found these conditions to be less than appealing or conducive to productivity.  When the level of dirt on the floor (and on my desk, computer, etc.) became unbearable I convinced one of the developers to allow me to hire a cleaning service – for which I took responsibility for myself and was reimbursed by the company afterwards.Problems quickly arose at Stoic, due mainly by the fact that my role and responsibilities were never clearly defined.  Some of my coworkers would express annoyance or irritation whenever I asked them a question, but I was never clear on who I was supposed to ask. One of them became openly hostile towards me when I asserted myself too strongly in an effort to get a particular objective completed.  When I tried to talk to him privately, he accused me of being “too critical and opinionated”.  He immediately deflated when I pointed out to him that being critical was a defining characteristic of doing QA work, but I was never able to reestablish rapport with him afterwards.

Tensions finally came to a head when some of my coworkers discovered that I had publicly criticized another game on an online forum for its poor representation of female characters and its male-only protagonist. Both coworkers separately wrote me private emails, chastising me for my comments. They felt that my comments reflected badly on them because the developers of the other game were their personal friends.

How was working at a startup similar to working for BioWare?

In some ways, Stoic felt like a magnified version of Bioware.  The lack of clear supervision and direction was significantly more problematic when the entire company was only 6 people. The isolation I felt at Stoic was increased a hundredfold. I had no support and no allies. I lost track of how many times I was locked out of the office because my coworkers would go to lunch without me and forget that I was in the bathroom. (The restrooms at Stoic were in another building.)

The combined experiences of working at Bioware and Stoic made me realize that my 25+ years of working almost exclusively in male-dominated environments had finally taken its toll on me. As much as I enjoyed working on video games I felt that my time and energy were better spent speaking and writing directly about gender inequality, rather than experiencing it myself on a daily basis.

Based on your experiences and where you see the industry heading, what would you say to women interested in getting into the game industry? Would you advise them to choose another profession?

I would strongly encourage women who are considering going into any male-dominated profession to develop a good female support network.  Seek out women’s organizations that are affiliated with your interests and obtain a female mentor, if possible.  This is imperative, because the isolation that you may feel will greatly impact your self-esteem and confidence.

I also recommend that the gaming industry not be your first job, even if it’s really what you want to do. Having some traditional work experience under your belt (even if it’s really boring) will give you a better foundation with which to deal with the unique challenges of working in games.

In conclusion

As dire as this might sound, it’s important to point out that this is not intended as a universal indictment of the video games industry. I know women working for games companies that are quite happy with the work they are doing, and the companies they are working for. There are also increasingly companies that are owned and operated by women, especially in the area of mobile games.

So I’ll end by quoting Leslee one more time, since hers is a sentiment I agree with whole-heartedly:

My only request for this post is that I don’t want it to be wholly negative in nature. I also don’t want it to simply be a criticism of Bioware and Stoic, because I had some really good experiences at both companies and I don’t hold any animosity toward either of them.

Yes, I’ve endured a great deal of workplace sexism over the past quarter century, but I’ve also spent nearly as long discussing the issue with almost anyone who would listen to me. Sure, I got a lot of eye rolls and dismissals, and sometimes blatant antagonism. But I also got a lot of people to think, and talk, and sometimes change. It can be a burden, but a necessary one, and one that I know I’m strong enough to handle.  I want this article to be about awareness and acknowledgement of the problem, and an opportunity for dialogue.