Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Mighty No. 9's Feminist Community Manager Controversy

A sudden upswing in work to do over the holidays means this will probably be the last blog post until January. I do my best to update this blog three times a month but that's going to be tricky this month. I also have a completely different blog post half-written but just finding out about this story today made me switch topics. This one's a lot more interesting.

There's a funded project on Kickstarter by the name of Mighty No. 9, which is being developed by a company called Comcept and billed as a spiritual successor to the Mega Man series. You can see why too; not only are the character designs and gameplay practically identical but it has Keiji Inafune -- director behind Onimusha, Dead Rising and Mega Man itself -- heading up the project.

Recently, Comcept appointed a new community manager called Dina Abou Karam. Her job seems to be to listen to fan feedback and forward it to higher-ups at Comcept. She's also posts blogs and updates on the game, manages the forums and basically acts as a go-between for the fans and developer.

The trouble is that Dina being appointed raised a whole host of questions amongst the many, many backers of Mighty No. 9. Firstly, Dina presented a piece of fan art of a gender-flipped version of Beck -- the male protagonist of MN9 -- and stated:

"As someone who cares about gender representation in games, please make Call [the game's female character] a playable character, or even better, make Beck a female bot alltogether [sic]! It shouldn't and won't affect gameplay! I started on some Mighty No. 9 Fan Art myself as a way to promote this Kickstarter/express my wish:"

Other than that, Dina tweeted that she was "never a Mega Man player" but she supported MN9 because her friends and boyfriend were working on the game. Here's some screenshots of some of the entire situation:

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The tweets were later deleted.

So what's the big deal? Well one of the reasons that fans of Mighty No. 9 and the Mega Man series are so frustrated by these developments is because they've been waiting a long time for a new iteration of the Mega Man series (and yes, this counts, albeit in a different form). There hasn't been a new Mega Man game since 2008 and none on a console since 2004. The fans have had to put up with cancellations of games like Mega Man Legends 3 and Mega Man Universe. A Western port of the iOS game Rockman X-over was cancelled because of negative feedback.

This video -- "Mighty Number Nope: The Dina Disaster" by a Youtuber called InternetAristocrat -- gives a more detailed account of why fans would be frustrated than I can and provides screenshots from the backers-only MN9 forum. It goes into detail about the social justice causes Dina is interested in according to her tweets and mentions that she stated her favourite Mega Man game is Mega Man X ... after saying that she wasn't a Mega Man player.

Basically, it's understandable that the fans would be angry that a non-MM fan made suggestions that Comcept change the game to suit a personal ideology -- and be hired following it -- when that's not what the backers agreed to when they donated. They have a right to be angry over someone being hired who has been forceful when expressing her political viewpoints in association with the game (and the video by InternetAristocrat shows that Dina herself stated that she was hired because her boyfriend worked for Comcept). It's not what they paid for. Nor is it the person they want speaking on behalf of the backers/the Western audience. Here are some of the responses when Dina was announced as community manager:

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I should point out before I go any further that yesterday, Comcept released a statement saying that none of Dina's views actually effect the game in any way. Their statement can be viewed on Gameranx -- more on that site later -- but here's the important part:

"Will the community manager be skewing things the way they would personally like to see the game? Will the community manager ignore views that don’t match with their own personal ideals? Will the community manager lose the community’s desires due to unfamiliarity with the type of game we are making? Will the community manager be creating their own robots and levels and programming, or changing the game in any way, from what the core creative team wants?! A lot of these or similar questions have been raised.

The good news is that the answer, in all cases, is no."
So all of the comments in this blog are outdated by now, when people weren't sure just how much influence Dina had, but I haven't seen any other updates on the subject since. Not sure what the response has been to Comcept's explanation.

I've never played a Mega Man game but personally, I think the backers who want a refund are completely justified, even with Comcept's clarification (and as clarifications go, it hits all the right notes).

There's a good reason why companies keep their business and personal lives separate -- in fact, in InternetAristocrat's video, it's stated that Dina deleted her tweets about never being a Mega Man player for that exact reason -- and the backers donated to this project in good faith. I don't want to sound overdramatic but Dina is an unknown quantity in this situation. It's fine to have feminists on development teams -- in fact, it'd be pretty hard to avoid and ridiculous not to -- and it's even fine to have people on a development team who are not fans of previous games in the series. Lord knows that having developers who are fans of the series doesn't always work; look at the Ninja Theory's DmC. However, that's not what the backers paid for. The Kickstarter page itself says the following [emphasis theirs]:
"Every aspect of development—art, level design, music, programming, etc.—is being handled by veteran Japanese game creators with extensive experience in the genre, and with Mega Man in particular, all the way up to and including the project’s leader, Keiji Inafune himself!"
Moreover, this is specifically someone who was hired following a suggestion of her own, game-altering ideas based on a personal, political agenda and who got her foot in the door due to her boyfriend putting in a good word for her in spite of being unfamiliar with the series. There's no real reason for her to be a part of Comcept any more than any of the other thousands (I assume) of bilingual Mighty No. 9 fans out there.

My issue with this entire controversy is Dina's initial suggestion of, "even better, make Beck a female bot alltogether! It shouldn't and won't affect gameplay!" It's odd how if you said this about making Lara Croft or Samus male, all you would get is funny looks. Unusually, I've actually heard this suggestion before, about Link from the Legend Of Zelda series. I also heard the exact same thing when Peter Capaldi was announced as the next incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who. So why is it that when pushed for a reason why this should happen, the only response I ever see is "why not"?

If the only reason why you should change a character's gender is "why not" or "because we can", then there's a problem. You could apply that to any characteristic and make the same claim. "Why shouldn't the character be from Paraguay?!" Again, you could also say the same thing about gender-flipping female characters or making every non-white character Caucasian.

The reason "why not" is because these are established characters -- or at least characters with an appearance more-or-less figured out in the artist's mindset prior to drawing them on a page -- and even in the case of a character who can change his appearance, such as the Doctor, doesn't it do more to establish new strong female characters rather piggybacking on the success of a one who has been male for half a century? What would that bring to the table except for tokenism?

Look, there are actually some quite plausible reasons for switching a character's traits during development, such as if the writer adds something to the mythology that would make it awkward for the character to be [insert race/sex/sexuality here]. Or perhaps it conflicts with something that was already there and needs to be changed to suit it. However, regardless of the reasons why, I would think we could all agree that two fans who "care about gender representation" are not a good enough reason to alter the character designer and game director's creative visions.

Having said all of that, hopefully Comcept's clarification puts a few minds at ease. It's probably the best thing they could've done and maybe it will do the trick.

Anyway, one of the wonderful things about this entire controversy is that even though the typical parties have come out of the woodwork to express their frustration with the "misogyny" towards Dina -- do me a favour and take a look at the comments pictured above. See any hatred of women? -- mainstream gamers don't seem to share that viewpoint. If you visited the Gameranx article above, you might've noticed that Ian Miles Cheong (yes, that one) disabled comments. It's hard not to believe he didn't do that because of the backlash against his previous article on the subject, the blatantly clickbait-titled "Be Respectful and Considerate - Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter Explodes With Misogynist Rage". Some of the comments are very satisfying to read, calling out Cheong for casually, and unprofessionally, making the Mighty No. 9 backers out to be misogynists.

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And my personal favourite:

When a game journalist -- even one as biased as Cheong -- actually starts throwing around the term "misogyny" simply because people object to having the rug pulled out from under them on a product they paid for, game journalism really has hit its lowest point. I live in the UK and tracts like Cheong's are quite reminiscent of the snidely aggressive articles we see in the pages of tabloids like the Daily Mail.

In other words ... it's just a typical day on a gaming news site. Feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at