Sunday, September 7, 2014

How to make a misogynistic video game

It is possible to write about feminism for quite some time and completely avoid all the circus surrounding the depiction of women in videogames.

It is important to remember that, as any avid Internet user may easily be led by YouTube, Tumblr and Twitter into thinking that videogames are the final frontier of women's progress. Events over the summer have shown that the intersection of feminism and gaming is unfortunately a subject with staying power.

The debate arguably began in earnest April 20, 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris murdered several people at Columbine High School. The search for the homicidal motivations of the murderers would forever add videogames to the list of possible factors corrupting young men - casual sex, satanic cults, atheism, drugs, explicit music, guns and... videogames.

It wasn't an entirely new discussion. At this time people like Jack Thompson were already hard at work trying to get all sorts of media banned. Critics of the alarmism over in-game realism did a decent job of showing how preposterous the concerns about videogames were. The choice was basically between a government censor and personal responsibility - the choice that already plagued the music industry for decades.

Ultimately Columbine was not an event that signaled a epidemic of violent young men corrupted by crumbling social mores. In fact, the opposite was true. Crime rates had fallen throughout the 1990s, and lots of evidence points to the expansion of digital media (including pornography) being a pacifying force rather than an agitator. Instead of viewing their sons as at risk of becoming serial killers, many parents saw them as at risk of being unambitious and chronically underemployed.

Over time, perspectives have changed. But as all things are cyclical, young men are once again suspect. Gaming, for most rational people, is not poisoning the minds of young adult men. Yet something toxic persists.

The demons today are men, but not as they are manipulated by games - they are demons as they manipulate games. Young men are such a large part of the videogaming industry that games are often mirror images of the outlandish fantasies of young men. Fantasy pays the bills. Young men are not only the consumers of the product, but its makers - development studios are filled with dudes.

An industry that appears to be by men, for men automatically qualifies itself for analysis by feminists or really any other group interested in considering what is fair.

Some may still run into an antiquated mode of thinking and say that videogames are still making men into monsters. However, many concerned about the state of gaming will state that it is simply a reflection of a biased (perhaps "patriarchal") society. This is the preferred mode of argument as it avoids any debate about the specifics of gaming as it casts an even wider net over the massively complicated subject that is society at large.

One popular critic of gaming is Anita Sarkeesian - the author of "Feminist Frequency" blog, Sarkeesian successfully earned nearly $160,000 in crowdfunding pledges for a video series about tropes in videogames that focus on women.

The project ruffled a lot of feathers - despite not saying anything about legislation, Sarkeesian was viewed by many as a descendant in spirit of those that desired to censor games decades earlier. Where concerned conservative politicians failed, Sarkeesian would succeed by publicly shaming developers into building games for different markets. Sarkeesian was also accused of effectively running off with the money by delivering "terrible" (subjective) videos. The conspiracy theories gained wide circulation as it took many months before Sarkeesian delivered the first video of the promised series. Many weaker critiques, such as Sarkeesian being a "fake" gamer, were leveled.

Sarkeesian was further subjected to threats and online attacks. Such response is sadly an undeniable part of being a controversial figure on the Internet.

Given all this, it's still possible to be apathetic about the drama.

Why feel strongly one way or another? Tropes are present in videogames. They exist as they have always been with us. It is not (or shouldn't be) scandalous to point that out, as Sarkeesian does. And it is not (or shouldn't be) scandalous to not be worried about their existence.

The latest chapter of videogame drama, with very little to do with Sarkeesian, is elements of what is known to some as "#GamerGate". All one really needs to understand is that the latest events are just a small bit of evidence added to the pile supporting the idea that small industries - in this case "independent gaming" - are subjective, incestuous and nepotistic. Add the perverse incentives and nonexistent ethics of clickbait journalism and the result is not kind to anyone. Turns out "Indie" gamers should consider staffing legal and HR departments. Now, back to tropes.

The real dilemma in play for game developers is how does one navigate the waters of acceptability today.

First thing to avoid is bad press due to some real-life workplace scandal. Thankfully, a lot of game development shops already avoid this by hiring as few women as possible. Small game development companies do not need to take on the liability that is the co-ed water cooler in order to function.

The next problem is the content itself. Shipping a title that is the equivalent of a Robin Thicke song in game form may lead to a lot of press, but eventually it starts to hurt the brand.

What does one do if one wishes to avoid criticism of tropes and other perceptions of gender bias?

Here are some ideas:

1. Make a game based on an old book.

Find a story out of copyright, guaranteed to have lots of funny ideas about gender roles. Build a game around it.

2. Make a game based on a true story or historical facts

How many wives did Muhammad, Joseph Smith or Brigham Young have again? Could be a real-time strategy game. Run with it.

3. Make a game based on a fairytale or Disney movie

If the game absolutely needs a princess, borrow one instead of creating one.

4. Make a game based on a book or film popular with women

Edward Cullen would not need a lot of texture work. And 50 Shades of Grey remains an option. Even Game of Thrones exists as some sort of bizarre portrayal of societal ills already defended by "feminist" voices. Believe it or not.

5. Make a game that completely avoids storytelling or gives players a sandbox

Simply give players guns, allow them to connect to a network game and shoot each other. It's a proven recipe. Alternatively, hide elements that would bring criticism being a few intentional actions - open world games do a great job of blame shift.


What does following this formula accomplish?

It simply kicks the discussion back down the field. Critics of games that are absolutely derivative run the risk of appearing to be illiterate, or worse - insufferable buzzkills. Nobody seriously considers the "feminist" critique of Disney and Pixar movies that is often delivered to the world in the form of angsty Tumblr posts. Connecting gender bias to films has become boring, just as connecting gaming to serial murders is now completely tired.

Forgotten is that while gaming is a different way of storytelling, the stories are essentially the same. There is nothing special about the stories in games - in fact, the stories in videogames may be more healthy than the stories in television.

While television is infested with sexed-up morbid crime fantasies, adultery, fetid dreck like Honey Boo Boo and MTV's entire enterprise, videogaming seems innocent and idyllic.

Critics of games may try to argue that the debate is one of audience - young men that play games are apparently antisocial. While it may be true that gaming forums are antisocial, anyone with any sense of sensible self preservation on the Internet would discuss the specifics of Call of Duty long before touching the subjects of Big Brother, Survivor, or the Video Music Awards.

The drama will continue as gaming is destined to inherit products already well-tested by HBO and Showtime. It will hit us right in the face.

One of these days... Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A!

Right in the kisser.