A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains

“When he read to me–stupid things, dragons and heroes–he wouldn’t turn a page until I reached over and took his hand. That big man made every step of the story my choice. I loved that.” — Aveline, regarding her father

(Dragon Age 2 spoilers)

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PAX East: Girls in Gaming Panel

Crossposted at The Border House.

Last weekend, March 25-27, was the first annual PAX East convention. The Penny Arcade Expo has been running for several years in Seattle, but this is the first time it has come to the East Coast, and the first time I was able to attend. I’m going to write a few posts about the various panels I went to and the overall experience, and the first thing I would like to address is the “Girls in Gaming” panel that took place on Friday night.

The panel consisted of: Brittany Vincent (Editor-in-Chief, Spawn Kill), Julie Furman (Founder, SFX360), Alexis Hebert (Community Relations Manager, Terminal Reality), Padma Fuller (Product Marketing Manager, Sanrio Digital), and Kate Paiz (Senior Producer, Turbine), with Jeff Kalles of Penny Arcade moderating. The format was entirely Q&A, with no discussion and only short introductions before opening up the floor to questions. So it did not begin very well, though this was entirely the fault of the organizers.

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Mixed Reactions: Even Progress Comes With Sexist Dynamics

This week’s Context Clues went up today and it gave me quite a bit of food for thought. Although it (rightfully) focuses on both Modern Warfare 2 controversies from last week, there are a few articles about gender and sexism in games. The thing is, three out of the four posts were written by men. It’s problematic when men’s voices dominate a discussion of gender and sexism (unless the topic is specifically masculinity, but that was not the case here).

This isn’t the first time this has happened, either. Both of these “This Week In Video Game Blogging” posts discuss topics related to women and games yet link only to reactions by men to those topics. Critical Distance’s Grand Theft Auto IV Compilation references “genuinely-offended feminists” but the only linked posts that bring up the misogyny in the game are written by men. This Experience Points post makes two mistakes, first suggesting that social criticism of games is a new thing (when Shrub and Token Minorities have been around for years: since 2005 and 2006, respectively), and secondly linking to a post by a white man (ETA: correction, a non-POC Jewish man, see comments for clarification) as an example of writing about gender and race in games (no offense, Simon!).

And really, I didn’t find any of the posts about gender by men to be wrong or offensive or anything–most are actually pretty good. That’s not the point. The point here is the gaming blogosphere only seems to take notice of topics like gender when it’s men who are doing the writing. And that perpetuates sexist dynamics even as the people involved are denouncing sexism.

But that’s not quite what I was thinking about today as I read the posts linked in Context Clues. Dudes taking notice of sexism and saying “hey, this is bad, you guys!” isn’t a bad thing–it’s a sign of progress. Opinions vary on this, but personally, I would rather guys wrote about sexism than not, if only because the more voices speaking out, the better. But as the title says, progress doesn’t come without sexism of its own.

This is where my mixed reactions come in. When I read an article about sexism by a man (or a person of any gender, really) and he makes good points and seems to mostly get it, I’m happy. And yet, particularly now with this upswell of men talking about women and games, I’m also thinking “fucking finally,” and, “but why the hell didn’t they listen to me or people I know the million times we’ve said the same damn thing?”

This was the excerpt Erik chose to highlight from one of the posts, Self-destructive sexualism by Evan Stubbs:

Depressingly frequently we, as men, seem to want it all ways; we want women to be knowledgeable and “one of the guys”, but at the same time we claim to appreciate “a woman’s perspective” when it comes to games. We don’t want them to call attention to their femininity, as that would be manipulative marketing, but “we’d hit it” and we won’t watch, read, or listen if “she’s fugly”. We like hearing about the things they enjoyed, but we don’t want to hear about all that non-core crap like Peggle and The Sims. Somehow, we want our women to be nurturing and supportive of our interests, to be overtly sexy, and, as impossible as it is, to be pure and virginal.

This is a good point, but at the same time the idea that women are held to impossible standards and simply cannot win is also something that feminists have been saying for decades. Why is this being treated as an important, unique insight?

And this is not meant to be a dig at either Erik or Evan. Evan makes a lot of great points in his post–and he does link to posts by women–and I’m glad I found it through the Context Clues round-up. The problem is it’s nothing new, it’s stuff that women have been talking about for a long time. But now that it’s a guy saying it, people pay attention.

I said on Twitter, “I totally appreciate dudes writing about sexism in games, but it’s a bit frustrating to see old ideas treated like revelations, heh.” And though I didn’t have room to describe in a nuanced manner how I feel exactly and why, I still got some thoughtful comments from my friends. Ryan Gan and Justin Keverne both pointed out how being very knowledgeable on any subject and discussing that subject with newbs is frustrating. And while that is absolutely true–and is certainly part of my frustration sometimes, like when I’m explaining what male privilege is for the billionth time–it’s not the whole story. The other part of it has to do with what I’ve described above: continuing and changing sexist dynamics that exclude women’s voices even as we are making progress with bringing gender issues to wider attention. This problem is a lot more personal than most subjects because it affects me directly; when I talk about women’s voices being excluded, I am one of those women.

So what can be done to help minimize this sort of sexism? The biggest thing is to simply seek out writers from different perspectives. This goes for all social issues, not just gender but sexuality, race, disability, and so on. Reading and linking to writers of different perspectives will help diversify the gaming blogosphere. Also, if you’re writing about a social issue in games, search around and see if it has already been written about, particularly by someone who has personal experience with that issue. If it has been written about, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write about it, just that the previous writing should be acknowledged, and it can help to illuminate the issue further.

Another thing–and the Context Clues post helped me to realize this–is to focus on specific instances of sexism or specific games. Evan Stubb’s post uses some specific examples, but it’s a general “games and gamers: really quite sexist!” post. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it contributes to my frustration for reasons described above. It would be stronger and seem less like old ideas masquerading as new ones if it were focused around a specific incident or game. This post by Chris Dahlen, also linked in this week’s Context Clues, is a decent example of that, using Brutal Legend as the focus of a discussion about romance in games–he even links to two articles by female bloggers (disclaimer: one of them is mine! The other is by Emily Short).

We are making progress, and I’m really glad for that. But we still have a long way to go, and it’s imperative that we always expect more, or this progress we’ve made will stagnate, or even begin to roll backwards.

Modern Warfare 2 Ad Features, Condones Homophobic Slurs

(UPDATE: The ad has been removed; apparently IW didn’t notice the acronym, which I kind of think is bullshit, but I’m glad action was taken.)

Via Kotaku, a new ad went up on developer Infinity Ward’s YouTube page for the upcoming Modern Warfare 2. The ad features an in-game model of Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies “speaking out” PSA-style against grenade spamming multiplayer tactics. Along with using misogynist slur “pussies”, at the end of the ad is a caption saying the PSA was done for a fake organization called “Fight Against Grenade Spam”, aka FAGS. In one stupid video, Infinity Ward reinforces misogyny and homophobia and condones the openly homophobic atmosphere of online gaming where such words are used all too often.

Here is a transcript for those who can’t access the video:

[Video opens with in-game footage of a player named “BluntTrauma” (whose gamerpic is a pot leaf) killing another player with a headshot from a sniper rifle.]

Male Voice Over: Let’s take a break from the action to get a word from our sponsor.

[Cole Hamels game model, in fatigues, armor, and a red Phillies cap, closes the door on a Jeep and walks toward the camera.]

Hamels: Hi, I’m Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels. And I’m here today to talk to you about something close to my heart: random grenades. Have you ever found yourself just walking down the street, minding your own business, when BAM! You look down and see a deadly explosive device attached to your uniform? I have, and let me tell you, it’s not cool. So be cool, and avoid random grenades. They’re for pussies.

[A grenade thrown from off-screen sticks to the front of Hamels’s uniform; Hamels looks shocked; a ton more grenades cover him.]

Hamels: What the fuck?

[Hamels explodes. A black screen with white text reads: “Funding Provided By: Fight Against Grenade Spam.”]

VO: Brought to you by: Fight Against Grenade Spam.

And I’m pretty sure the joke about walking down the street only to be attacked by a grenade is totally hilarious to people living in actual warzones, who actually have to worry about being killed by explosives.

More at Hellforge, including an interesting quote from an Infinity Ward dev about how they take responsibility for their marketing. Oh, really?

ETA: Lono from Sarcastic Gamer speaks out, and some analysis from Brainy Gamer.

Vorpal Bunny Ranch has a powerful post about personal experiences with this word.

Deirdra Kiai has a related post about what is truly “edgy.”

ETA2: Sessler’s Soapbox on the issue; Adam explains the precise problems rather well, making the distinction between simple swearing and words that are bad because they marginalize groups of people.

ETA3: Another post on the issue by Amanda Phillips at HASTAC.

GTA IV Post Updated

Today I was made aware that there were some factual errors in my GTA IV post from May of 2008. Since that post is often linked as a resource in discussing the game (which was my intention in writing it, and it is in fact the first result when Google searching “sexism GTA IV”), I asked some friends who have played the game (and are awesome) to glance it over and point out any errors. I have now corrected those errors.

I find it telling that this request also resulted in more examples of sexism, and now homophobia, to add to the post.

Read the post here.

Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect's Varied Inclusiveness

For the most part I seriously enjoyed Mass Effect despite the initial problems I wrote about in my last post. After the first couple of missions I had a handle on the gameplay and was at a point where I had the freedom to shoot things up or have deep conversations with my crew at my own whim. I completed most of the side quests and finished the game wanting more; I immediately began a renegade playthrough, though I did not have time to get very far.

Overall, Mass Effect took huge steps forward for inclusiveness in games. Its racial diversity is unlike any I have seen in a game: nearly all of the major and minor human NPCs are people of color, and none of them are stereotypes. In another impressive step, not only is there an important character–the Normandy’s pilot, Joker–who happens to be disabled, but a conversation with him reveals the many different layers of ableism he has experienced throughout his life. Unfortunately, the game stumbles when it comes to gender inclusiveness. While the game seems quite egalitarian on the surface, notably in the ability to choose whether to play as a male or female character, I have noticed some deep sexism in the world-building (galaxy-building?), some subtle and some not. I will be writing about how the game explicitly addresses sexism, racism, and other social issues in a future post; for now I want to examine how the fiction of the game has been influenced by sexism on the part of the developers.

I. The Alien Race of Women–I Mean, Asari

The Asari are the all-female race of blue aliens that are iconic to the game. The Asari member of Shepard’s crew is Dr. Liara T’Soni, a (relatively) young scientist and possible romantic interest for both male and female Shepard. Liara is a frustrating character because she is likable, but she was clearly designed to be as likable as possible–to a certain type of male gamer. Go on any gaming forum discussing her and there will be multiple posts talking about how hot she is because she is so “innocent.” This perception of her seems to stem from her nervousness when talking to Shepard and her implied virginity.

The positioning of innocence as an attractive trait in women has its roots in patriarchy, related to how patriarchy encourages the infantilization of women: women are portrayed as childlike and unable to make decisions for themselves, necessitating a male protector and provider who knows what’s good for her (thus maintaining patriarchy, despite how insulting and inaccurate this characterization is). The infantilization of women is seen in many aspects of our culture, and a quick Google search turns up examples in law, religion, advertising, and fashion. For this reason, I find the obsession with Liara’s innocence to be creepy, not to mention in contradiction with other aspects of her personality, namely her actual age–over 100–and her extensive experience as a scientist. (For the record, I also think rompers are awful.)

In addition, while some have praised BioWare for including the option of a lesbian relationship in the game, Liara is, frankly, a cop-out, a way to have hot girl-on-girl action for straight men without actually having any gays: both Liara and the codex explain at length how the Asari don’t really have a gender (by which I assume they mean “sex”, since sex and gender are two different things and the Asari are clearly gendered female) and they mate through psychic mind connections. While I don’t think the actual development of the relationship or even the sex scene is outrageously exploitative (though I would note that the sex scene with Liara is slightly longer, with more nudity than the others), when contrasting the romance options for male and female Shepard, I found the lack of a romance option between two men to be conspicuous. The absence of a gay male romance, which is due at least in part to the gaming community’s reputation as a notoriously homophobic space, implies that the female Shepard/Liara romance is mostly for straight male titillation rather than a concern for the inclusion of LGBTQI folks.

Obviously, my problems with how one Asari character is written shouldn’t condemn an entire species, but the Asari as a race are also problematic. In short, they are every female stereotype or cliche rolled up into one new species. According to the codex, the Asari have three stages of life: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Matriarch (otherwise known on Earth as the “crone”). These stages just so happen to correspond with what were, until fairly recently though arguably still today, the three acceptable roles for women in society. Making these archetypes an explicit aspect of an alien race that just happens to be all-female is at worst sexist and at best lazy and uncreative.

In addition, the Asari are sexualized to a much farther extent than any other species (partially as a result of point two, below). The first Asari the player meets in the game is called the “Consort,” and yes, she runs what amounts to a brothel: clients meet her for her “services,” which may or may not be sex. Walking through the Consort’s chambers, the player overhears nervous aliens telling the Consort’s aides that this is their “first time.” While the consort is not explicitly a prostitute, the situation is clearly meant to humorously resemble a brothel. The player can also watch Asari strippers dance at the club called Chora’s Den. Thirdly, Liara and the codex both describe how Asari can mate with any intelligent being through a sort of psychic mind-meld. Now, I am all for science fiction experimenting with different kinds of sexuality and sexual practices, but this is another case of pandering to straight men. It’s no coincidence that the all-female race is the one that can mate with anybody.*

Even Matriarch Benezia, one of the most powerful and wise beings in the galaxy, is sexualized. She had to have huge breasts and a revealing outfit because even though she is old and powerful, she still needs to be sexy, as the primary purpose of the Asari (just like women here on Earth) is to be attractive to straight men. Their second purpose is to serve men: as Liara drops her research to serve Shepard, as the Consort serves her clients, as the dancers serve the bar’s patrons, Benezia serves Saren and Sovereign. This turns her into a villain, but not even a willing one–she loses all agency because of Sovereign’s mind control, breaking it just enough to tell her daughter that she is not worth saving.

In another frustrating move, the Asari are known for their skills with Biotics, Mass Effect‘s science fiction version of magic. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but in the context of video games as a medium and RPGs in particular, there is a sexist trend of always putting women in the role of magic user, with few exceptions, ever since White Mage was the only female character in the original Final Fantasy. The codex also pays lip service to Asari Commandos, who are described as extremely deadly; the player encounters them in one battle in the entire game, during which they didn’t nearly live up to the hype.

As another detail that serves to emphasize how stereotypically feminine the Asari are supposed to be, the Asari member of the Council is representative of compassion and diplomacy. Where the Turian member represents military action and strength, and the Salarian represents intelligence and strategy, both men, the Asari member of the Council is the only woman and occupies the traditional role of women: peacemaker. Because she’s so good at understanding peoples’ feelings. Again, this isn’t bad in and of itself, but combined with all the other ways in which the Asari are stereotypically feminine, it belies the sexist assumptions about women in the mind of the people who created them, namely that the creators buy into gender essentialist arguments about how women are. (That article even cites the sexist and simply wrong idea behind the arrangement of the Council [emphasis original]: “A common corollary belief is that while men are physically and rationally superior, women are morally superior.”)

The Asari are the only alien species in the game with visible females, so they were made to be “hyper-female”, encompassing the stereotypical roles for human women. This is not only sexist and gender essentialist but a failure of imagination: why would an alien race conform to our (incorrect, arbitrary) human assumptions about what women are or should be? Good science fiction challenges our deepest-held assumptions, including those about gender, femininity and masculinity. With the Asari, Mass Effect only reinforces the idea that all women are a certain way, and that way should be as pleasing to straight men as possible.

II. Why Are There No Ugly Female Aliens?

In general, the portrayal of women in Mass Effect is better than many games. It meets the required minimum of having female characters that aren’t hypersexualized: they have relatively realistic proportions and their clothing is appropriately similar to the male characters’, for the most part. There remains, however, a notable discrepancy between men and women in the galaxy of the game: all the women are hot, but not all of the men are.

Look at the varied body types we see among male aliens in the game. In addition to the humans (most of whom, I will grant, are meant to be attractive–Kaiden certainly is), we see the lizard-like Turians, the hulking and reptilian Krogan, the large and cattle-like Elcor, the amphibian Salarians, the squat Volus, and the jellyfish-like Hanar.

All the female aliens present in the game, aside from a single female Quarian (who I will get to in a moment), are Asari**. The Asari, a species with all the issues I outlined above, that seem to be a space representation of femininity. This is Othering via world-building: male is the default for most races, but the ones that have females at all are so female they encompass female archetypes, run brothels, strip in bars, and have sex with anyone and anything.

Go ahead and do a word search for “female” on those Wikia articles linked above. It isn’t even mentioned on the Elcor or Volus pages; the only mention on the Hanar page is to say that there is “no discernible difference” between male and female Hanar, which is only problematic because of human sexism–see the side note about gender presentation below.

The only mention of “female” on the Krogan page is how all the Krogan females are on the Krogan homeworld trying to have as many babies as possible. Convenient! The only mention of “female” on the Salarian page is to note that the species is 90% male, and the females also all stay on the Salarian kitchen–I mean, home word, but it’s okay because they are all powerful politicians. Of course, this means they needn’t appear in the game. How convenient!

The only mention of “female” on the page about the Turians is in the “trivia” section, and it says: “No female turians are seen in the game. This is because there was insufficient development time and memory budget to support two different versions of the same species.”

This explains everything. The reason the stuff about Krogan and Salarian females seems like convenient excuses is because they are: when time and budget were tight, the non-hot females were the first to go. Other than humans, there was only room for one model for each species, and for the most part, the females were disposed of–except for Tali, the only Quarian in the entire game. Having only males did not stop the developers from having many Turian and Krogan NPCs, so why does the player never encounter even one other female Quarian? I mean, other than the convenient excuse that all the Quarians never venture outside of their own fleet (except when they do). Tali is saved from the chopping block because, unlike Turian or Krogan females, she is acceptably attractive: she has an hourglass figure, a sexy accent, and her mask allows fans to imagine that she has a face like their favorite actress.

The absence of something as insignificant as females may be explained, but that doesn’t mean it is excused. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Mass Effect‘s depiction of a galactic society where every single woman, both alien and human, just so happens to have a humanoid body a supermodel would be jealous of isn’t sexist, messed up, and wrong.

A side note on gender presentation

The thing that kills me about the “we didn’t have time to make any females!” excuse is that there is no real reason male and female Turians, for example, couldn’t look just alike above their clothes. Not all animals on Earth have sexual dimorphism; why should all aliens?

Technically some of those Turian or Krogan or Hanar NPCs in the game could be female, despite having deep voices and no breasts. There is no reason an alien society should have the same ideas about femininity or masculinity as we do (or have such ideas at all!). The catch is, only humans are playing Mass Effect; therefore, any creature lacking sufficient feminine markers are going to be assumed (in this unfortunate case, correctly) to be male. The developers could, however, have easily challenged players’ ideas about femininity by casually referring to the ugly, deep-voiced Elcor ambassador as “she”.

As I said above, good science fiction challenges our most basic assumptions. Unfortunately, Mass Effect is not good science fiction. In fact, it seems to embrace our own societal “common wisdom” about women and femininity all too wholeheartedly. I can only hope someone on the development team has read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness or some Octavia Butler before writing Mass Effect 2.


* One thing I do find interesting about the Asari is the idea that “purebloods”–Asari who mate with other Asari–are lesser, as they don’t bring anything new to the species. It’s an interesting inversion of the “Mudblood” idea; the term is from Harry Potter, but it’s a common trope in fantasy: see the vast number of stories about half-elves angsting that they don’t belong to either the elf or human cultures.

** Some may object that the Rachni Queen is a female “ugly” alien; while this is true, they aren’t part of Citadel culture in any way; they aren’t meant to be seen as equal to humans or the other intelligent species. Not only that, but, as an insectoid species, the Rachni Queen’s only purpose is to breed lots of children–quite patriarchal. Also, one exception does not outweigh the six other species that are “ugly” and all male.

Thank you to Kateri, Simon Ferrari, and Ryan Gan for their help in the preparation of this post.

Mass Effect: First Impressions

When I first started playing Mass Effect last week, I hated it. This is one game that makes a terrible first impression and probably loses players because of it.

After creating my character and watching a brief opening, I found myself thrust onto an alien planet with my two squadmates, and, after a tutorial that was at once bare-bones and overwhelming, I was killed by some disgusting reanimated corpses. Try again!

On a second attempt I made it through the area and came upon a couple of NPCs to talk to; I rushed through the dialogue since I was eager to learn more about the combat and how to actually play the game. The next area was more difficult, and I ended up dying again.

Just as I felt I was getting a hang of the combat, the level was over and it was back to cutscenes and dialogue. When I regained control of Shepard, she was in the office of the human ambassador at the Citadel, the major city of the game. This began a three-hour-long segment of running around talking to people, listening to exposition, and gathering my crew, all while I was itching to get back into the action.

To say the least, it takes a while to get used to Mass Effect‘s pacing.

The game had other problems at the start, too. While I was thrilled to be able to play as a female character, I was worried there would be a Fallout 3 sort of situation where the dialogue for the female character wouldn’t make sense, or other characters would refer to me as “he.” This fear came about because of a scene at the beginning where Shepard is talking to her two human squadmates about humanity’s place at the Citadel, and includes “beautiful women” on her list of “things humanity has to offer aliens”. Really, now? I could see how a heterosexual man might say this, but why would a woman objectify herself, reduce herself to a commodity that could be used to appease aliens? (Not to mention it is a nonsensical comment–all aliens are heterosexual males or lesbians who are attracted to human women that meet our own arbitrary beauty standards? That’s a lot of assumptions!) I found it hard to believe any woman would say that, let alone the Commander Shepard I was playing, who threatened a man at a bar for calling her “princess.” Fortunately, this is the only instance of dissonance so far I have seen between my character as I play her and what she says.

The first major alien species you really get to know is the Asari; I have so many problems with this group that they will be getting their own post. For now I will just say they are a strange, dark mark on what is otherwise an impressively inclusive game.

In particular, the game excels at racial inclusiveness. You can choose the race of your character–and you aren’t limited to white/black/Latin@/Asian like in Fallout 3–and many important and minor NPCs are people of color: both of your human squadmates, Captain Anderson, and the human ambassador are people of color. You help out a reporter named Emily Wong. You meet a South Asian man mourning for his wife, who died in combat. Many NPCs also have accents, like the British doctor on your crew and the Dutch medic at the Citadel. Mass Effect makes it clear that in the far future, all humans will be welcome, not just white Americans.

This inclusiveness is part of what kept me playing the game through all the endless dialogue, and I’m very glad I did, because now I’m really enjoying it. Having settled into the proper pace, and finally coming to terms with the combat, the game has actually become quite fun. The story is intriguing, the characters three-dimensional, and the flirting hilariously awkward. I’m looking forward to playing through the rest of it and writing about it here.