Quick hit: BioWare writer responds to my criticisms

On the Mass Effect boards, via the comments on GameCritics.com, BioWare writer Patrick Weekes had this to say about my post:

I think that the writer had some valid points. I can defend some stances and explain others as unfortunate but necessary, but ultimately, our focus on creating a wide galaxy in the first game meant that we prioritized new races over different genders, and that resulted in a big universe with a lot of interesting cultures and no female turians, salarians, or krogan. We are hoping to address that in future games, and we hope that the size and scope of our galaxy makes up for that lack, at least in part, until we do.

On the issue of our female characters being hypersexualized, I would agree that they were generally presented as attractive, but then, so were most of the men — we didn’t have a fat or flabby model available for either gender, so every man on the Citadel, from Udina to Conrad Verner, is walking around with abs of steel. As a mainstream video game, we are always going to err on the side of making our characters attractive, just as you’d expect to see in a big-budget movie.

That said, the asari were not just peacemakers. Two of the game’s big enemy bosses were asari (Shiala on Feros and Benezia on Noveria). The Destiny Ascension, flagship of the Citadel fleet, is an asari vessel, not a turian one. And it’s not just a few female bosses. We had, if the oft-repeated soundsets are any indication, female generic enemies as well — hostile female vanguards and female merc or pirate gang members, and I’d hold our female merc up against BioShock’s “Do you think I’m pretty?!” splicer woman any day as far as a nonsexualized generic female enemy.

Of the female followers, one was a biotic, yes, but another was a computer hacker with a shotgun and a tendency to lob tech grenades, and a third is the only pure soldier of all the followers.

So some of the article I agree with, albeit from an inside-the-company perspective where I know why some decisions were made, but other points stem from wanting the game to be something that it isn’t. Mass Effect is always going to be a mainstream mass-market game. We are unapologetically aiming for a wide audience — summer blockbuster, not art house movie. As a result, our men are usually going to be attractive or ugly-but-rugged, and our women are going to be attractive or distinguished. That’s what most people want.

I’m flattered he took the time to read my piece, and glad the team is working on some of these issues for Mass Effect 2. I totally agree with his points about the human NPCs in the game. But I can’t help being a bit hurt at the suggestion that having a vast and varied universe might make up for the fact that most of the alien races don’t have females at the moment. It immediately positions women as inferior, an afterthought, something that can be added if there is time or money or memory enough. A nice feature but not necessary. And regardless of whether it could have been helped or not, it’s upsetting.

April Round Table: Brokering Peace with the Fear

[TRIGGER WARNING, discussion of sexual assault, and graphic violence.]

April’s Blogs of the Round Table asks participants to design a game that deals with a serious social issue, a topic that seems like a perfect fit for a feminist gaming blog like this one. It didn’t take long for me to realize exactly what topic I wanted to address: rape culture. What took so long was finding a good allegory through which I could recreate rape culture. Then I remembered a paper I read recently about women and tabletop gaming, called Saving Throw for Half Cooties, which contained these few paragraphs in the section telling guys how to make women feel welcome at the RPG table, under the heading “7. DO NOT RAPE THEIR CHARACTER”:

… Another friend of ours describes a game that “I was lucky to get out of when I did.” On the night after she left, the party got arrested by the city watch. After throwing the PCs into separate cells, the male gamemaster had the guards rape every female character. The women left in tears and never returned to roleplaying, while, as our friend described incredulously, “the GM never understood what he did wrong.”

Roleplaying games allow people to act out fantasies in a forum where, as the ads and magazines say, “the only limit is your imagination.” So think long and hard about what you and your imagination want. Killing another person’s character primarily signifies “beating” them at the game, not a real desire to commit murder. Roleplaying rape means one thing, and can be legally prosecutable harassment.

Imagine how you would feel if every time a player mentioned killing your character, you knew they were wearing a gun.

And I had my allegory. It is not a perfect one. It is vastly simplified, in fact. But it is the best thing I can think of that would give a proper emotional reaction and not trivialize the issue (the way, say, playing as a mouse surrounded by cats might).

The game is a first-person adventure game with sim elements. You play as a human being trying to live your life in your town or city neighborhood; one game lasts for a month of in-game time. You need to eat, sleep, work, make friends and have relationships to keep your social, mental, and physical meters full (much like The Sims).

The world has two kinds of people: those in blue uniforms and those in yellow uniforms (both groups are comprised of people of all genders, races, ethnicities, and sexualities). The people in blue uniforms all visibly carry guns. Other than this, the world is nearly exactly like our own.

When the player starts a game, they are randomly given a class (rich, poor, middle class), a race, a gender, an age, a location (city, suburbs, etc.). The player always wears a yellow uniform–they can look down at their avatar’s body and see this. They can see the yellow sleeves when they interact with things. They can look at themselves in a mirror.

Every time the player encounters a person in a blue uniform, they have a chance of being shot. The player knows this.

But the player cannot avoid blue uniformed people. They are half the population. The player has to go to the supermarket to buy food; every time, they have to check out with the blue-uniformed cashier. Sometimes he puts his gun on the counter, where the player can see it clearly. Sometimes he waves it in their face.

The player has to socialize in order to survive. The player can build friendships and relationships (with anyone). But this comes at a risk. The player cannot always tell what blue-uniformed people are trigger-happy. And they simply can’t be avoided altogether.

When riding a bus or subway, sometimes a blue-uniform will fire their gun into the air.

The player will have to deal with coworkers or even a boss that like to talk about guns. They make jokes about shooting people, even though 90% of shooting victims are yellow-uniformed people like the player. But if they don’t go to work, they can’t earn money to buy food, and they will die. In these situations, the player can ignore their coworkers, join in the joking, or confront the person about it. Confronting the person decreases the player’s mental health meter, but it has a small chance of making the person put their gun away and don a green uniform. Green uniforms are allies, will not shoot the player, and make the world marginally safer. Very marginally.

Characters may give the player advice on how to avoid getting shot. Following or not following this advice will have zero effect on the player’s chances of getting shot. The player probably won’t know this at first, but may figure it out, when they eventually DO get shot, and exclaim, but I did everything they said!

Because eventually the player avatar WILL get shot (I thought about having an overall 1:4 chance but didn’t want to force the player to keep playing over and over just to get the “full experience”… *vomits*). Sometimes they may not see who did it, and black out immediately. Sometimes the player will remain conscious for a little while as the blue-uniform keeps shooting. Sometimes more than one person will shoot.

The player will wake up in a hospital. They have a 50-50 chance of having a blue or yellow doctor. A yellow doctor will treat them kindly. A blue doctor will be curt, or give a lecture about all the things the player supposedly did wrong.

The player’s avatar’s race and class affect whether or not the player is encouraged to go to the police (who are disproportionately blue-uniformed), and the treatment they receive at the police station. Either way, there is never an arrest.

Rich characters will have an easy time paying the hospital bill.

The player must live on through the rest of the month as normal. But now, whenever a coworker cracks a joke, or a gun goes off in the subway, the player will have flashbacks; quick visions of the first time they were shot, and their health drops. It becomes that much harder to negotiate with the fear.

And it is likely the player will get shot again.

The game is far from perfect. I know I have missed important things. I can’t encompass all the nuances of rape culture in a simple allegory, but suggestions, additions, and other comments are all welcome. However, this is not a Feminism 101 post/thread, so I will delete comments questioning rape culture or otherwise demonstrating that the commenter has not read Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog.

The title comes from this Jezebel post about rape culture and the fashion industry.

Please visit the Blog of the Round Table’s main hall for links to the rest of this month’s entries.