It’s been a crummy few years in game culture. In 2012 there was the campaign against Anita Sarkeesian. (Even now, people are publically declaring that killing her is their New Year’s resolution.) There was an entire controversy around Mass Effect adding a male gay romance option. (Meaning: Not mandatory.)
2013 hasn’t been much better. Wizardchan users harassed developer Zoe Quinn simply for making a game and submitting it to Greenlight. Backers of the Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter had a massive freak-out over the hiring of Dina Abou Karam as a community manager, who despite having no hand in game development, was criticized for her “feminist agenda” and a tweet stating she hadn’t played Mega Man. Many also say she got the job through her boyfriend at Comcept, a criticism I might support if men’s workplace value was outright dismissed because of their “agendas,” lack of experience and gains maybe made via nepotism with as much frequency as women’s are, especially in geek culture.
While few communities are free of sexism and intolerance, there’s too much evidence backing the stereotype of gamers as basement-dwelling, misogynist, and homophobic losers. And though calling out problems is important, let’s be pro-active and make 2014 better for gaming.
Gamer dudes: drop the entitlement
By “gamer dudes” I mean the white, hetero, cisgendered guys who cling onto gaming as their haven for misogynistic, homophobic and generally terrible behaviour. Newsflash: Games aren’t just for you, and you’re not playing them alone anymore.
But fret not; there are still plenty of games that are created for your demographic. If you come across one that hasn’t been – and you will, since many developers are opening up to diverse player bases – resist the urge to start a smear campaign or complain about how games are going downhill.
Either don’t play, or deal with it. If I can still have an enjoyable Mass Effect 2 play through with lingering creep shots of Miranda Lawson’s perfect butt for 90 hours of gameplay, you can get past a minute of fictional guy-guy flirting.
Players: support the indies
If you’re as bored by the crappy stories and repetitive cycle of mainstream games as I am, dig deeper to learn what independent developers are up to. It’s the indie teams, not the big publishers, that are creating some really exciting work.
One of the best-reviewed games of 2013, Gone Home, was released by a four-person team at The Fullbright Company and turns the idea of what a successful game looks like on its head. Play is mostly reading and listening to music. It’s about family dynamics. It features lesbian teenagers. It is fantastic, and it wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for passionate folks who wanted to make a different kind of game, and the people who supported it. (Minecraft is another amazing game we owe to ambitious indie developers.)
If you want games that are really different in content and structure, check out games from creators like Porpentine and Merritt Kopas, who both challenge what games can be and do, and the dialogue they can encourage.
Conference organizers: make diversity a practice
PAX organizers recently announced that future events will have a Roll for Diversity Hub and Lounge, where attendees can “find information related to issues surrounding women, LGBTQ, people of colour, disabled people and mental health issues in gaming.” The hub is also to be “a resource for industry professionals and fans to interface in a setting focused on diversity, receive diversity training, learn more about diversity and meet people from diverse communities.”
It’s admirable that PAX is addressing issues, but diversity doesn’t materialize in separated “hubs” or lectures – it grows from seeking perspective.
In practical terms, diversity means giving attention to games developed outside of EA, Activision, Capcom or Ubisoft; or supporting such alternative development programs as Dames Making Games, or such collaborative workspaces as Bento Miso that make accessing other people and technology easier for people without funding. Maybe read and make event programming based on work by folks like Mattie Brice, Soha El-Sabaawi and Leigh Alexander, who all write smart things about games and interactive technology from non-mainstream perspectives.
If PAX really wants to be more diverse, its organizers have to step out of their comfort zones instead of shoving all the stuff that makes them uncomfortable off to the side.
Funders and marketers: get with the times
If we include mobile and online games, women account for 45 per cent of gamers. Even so, video game marketers at large publishers still believe that women don’t play games and female protagonists simply don’t sell. Perhaps this is why they get 40 per cent less in their marketing budgets.
Even when presented with research, people don’t want to take risks on games that challenge the status quo. LongStory, a game currently in development for pre-teen girls about dating and LGBTQ issues, is a great example of this. The playable prototype has tested positively with 10- to 16-year-old girls, some even calling it “legit” (authentic). But LongStory is having issues getting support.
“It’s a new audience with a new type of game in North America on a subject that has gotten very little coverage in mass-market games for English-speaking audiences (let alone tweens) to date,” says Miriam Verburg, LongStory’s producer. “When I present, people say there’s no market or don’t think the game is important. But when a new engine comes along that allows studios to create yet another high definition first-person shooter that is considered innovation. I’m starting to think what we call innovation are the same ideas, slightly reinvented.”
Given the super sexist Xbox One marketing and the gaming industry’s overall preference for glorified violence, I agree with her.
Finally, a message for casual gamers or non-gamers
Keep doing what you’re doing, and maybe a little bit more. You have every right to comment on offensive stuff when you see it, so don’t let rants by self-proclaimed “real gamers” discourage you from influencing game culture. And don’t worry about the games versus art debate, games are supposed to be fun. If you want to join in and play, you can and should be able to without all this other baggage. Happy New Year!