Recently a certain level of animosity towards the more female sex has been made apparent in the gaming world. There was an entirely unnecessary rage against Bioware writer Jennifer Kepler, an attention seeking bully in fighting game reality show Cross Assault, and now a torrent of what I can only describe as beyond vile harassment has been heaped upon Anita Sarkesian of Feminist Frequency for suggesting a series of videos researching the ways in which women have traditionally been portrayed in video games. Before I say any more, these videos are a really, really good idea and I can’t stress enough that you should donate to the Kickstarter to make them happen. Done? Okay, let’s get started.
First, an apology. This behaviour is happening in my industry, and coming from my audience. It is not okay, it is despicable and I’m ashamed I didn’t know how bad the problem was until now. Anita’s reaction impresses me and gives a fantastic example to anyone else of how to deal with this sort of behaviour. Having been subject to bullying and harassment myself – as I’m almost certain many people both working in the games industry and enjoying games today have been at some point in their lives – I’m well aware that the last thing that I want to do is tell someone else that it’s been happening. It’s an intense feeling of powerlessness, and it often feels like telling someone else about would somehow make it concrete and intolerable. However, that is and always will be the solution to this behaviour: make it public, ideally while it’s happening. Anita has done that, and made many people (myself included) aware of what a huge issue we’re dealing with here. Now that we know, we can help.
Next I want to offer something of an explanation. If we’re going to find a way to deal with this perception in our industry, it’s important to understand where it comes from. I’ve heard a lot of suggestions that it’s somehow related to the growth of games in popularity i.e. “now the arseholes are playing games too”. In small part, this is true – but there’s a pre-existing culture that has attracted said arseholes, and that comes from somewhere else I think: games were made by nerds, and nerds don’t have skills with women. Yes, this is a massive generalisation. Yes, in large part they are still made by nerds. I’m a nerd myself, and although I’m quite comfortable these days with my ability to attract women, that wasn’t always the case. I’ve had a long and frustrating history with women during my formative years: heartless rejection, unrequited love and just plain inexperience played a starring role in turning my interests towards computers, programming languages and virtual worlds. My unpleasant experiences weren’t limited to the fairer sex of course, but at 16 that did tend to be where my mind focused. All of these experiences ended up pushing me to where I am today – where my friends, job and ladies make me feel like the happiest duck in the world – but I can’t deny that I went through a period where my perspective had a flavour of misogyny, and whether I wanted it to or not I expect it would have come through in the things I made.
See, to me misogyny means any level of poor representation of women. Boob-heavy characters in Soul Calibur, or that new Catwoman comic cover are certainly examples. But a complete lack of representation counts as pretty poor on the scale also. Which is definitely something I notice a lot in early games. Sure, we were dealing in pixels, our characters were spaceships or hedgehogs because they were easier to believe when moved & animated so unrealistically. We were dealing in metaphors because we couldn’t get high-def enough to try and simulate something real. I get that. But all our metaphors either lacked women or had them as objects or worse, dicking the player around (Princess Peach continuously screwing over Mario, anyone?). Our metaphors said either “women don’t matter” or “women will hurt you”. And given the age that many developers were when making these games, given my own experiences around that age and given how similar those experiences are to so many other nerds at that stage of their lives, I understand where those messages come from. I don’t think they were good, but it wasn’t about sending a message – it was about finding our place and our people (nerds are some of the most social people I know when you get them around other nerds!). But these messages formed a part of the foundation on which the games industry has been built upon.
Many of us nerds have since met wonderful women who changed our lives, men who showed us how to really be a man, or shared other experiences to become more self-aware and to change our perspectives on these things. We realise the errors of our ways and move on, happy in our new maturity and assuming everyone else is doing the same. Until someone like Anita speaks up and it suddenly becomes apparent that some people have been carrying the wrong torch for a very long distance now. E3 this year was a big hint along those lines too – with innovation turning into a mainstay of the now flourishing indie community it became apparent that the vast majority of upcoming AAA titles are about men shooting other men, or punching sexy nuns in the face. These are our mass-marketed games. It’s worrying, and we need to do something about it.
And this is where I’d like to talk about Indie Games. Because this is where I think the solution comes from. This is where those wonderful nerds like myself, who turned our experiences around, or new and incredible nerds who somehow grew up unaffected can work their magic. What magic, you ask? Why, we get to revisit those metaphors. A retro-feeling pixel-arted platformer that teaches players to view their problem from different perspectives? Interesting! A classic-style sudden-death platformer where the main character metaphorically needs the girl (and her bandages) as his motivation for saving her? Curious! How about this: A re-imagining of Mario where time is inconstant, questions are asked that may not have answers, the same solution doesn’t always apply to the same problem, and finally the player is left wondering if they were saved the princess or were the monster all along?
The metaphors that abound in many indie games today are much more mature than they ever were in early games. The views are more healthy, more open and far more self-aware; and the greatest part is that once again we aren’t intentionally doing it. Just as I imagine many misogynistic views accidentally came through in early games, healthy and mature views are accidentally coming through in today’s indie games. Certainly I don’t pretend this generalises over all indie games – even the studio I work for doesn’t create that I would describe as having a good representation of women – but I optimistically see it as an emerging trend that will, as steadily larger and larger audiences flock towards the innovation in the indie games scene, become far more common and widespread throughout our audiences as well.
As an industry, we may have accidentally given out audiences the wrong message about women. For that, for the games industry, and for the people who received those messages, I sincerely apologize. Indie games is where we have a chance to do it again, and give a more mature message. And maybe, just maybe, it’s where the people who are part of this tide of hatred can learn some other ways to deal with their own lives and experiences.