Sunday, 20 April 2014

Comparing 2002 to 2014: How Have Things Changed?

This blog post features spoilers for The Wolf Among Us and Metal Gear Solid 2.

I apologise for not updating more regularly but, as you'll know by now, it's mainly due to college work building up at inopportune moments. The final five weeks are coming up soon and I sense that the assignments are all going to be crammed in at once. Plus, if that wasn't enough, I've been avoiding gaming sites like the plague because I was intentionally trying to stay away from any information about Dark Souls II, wanting to go in completely blind, so if any major news about gender issues in gaming cropped up, I haven't heard about it. I know Anita Sarkeesian accepted her GDC Ambassador award but I haven't watched her speech, and don't intend to.

Anyway, I'm finally able to finish this blog post that I started writing in early January. There'll be a few places where I write things like "lately" and "last week" but it's outdated in a few places. I even linked to the Penny-Arcade report at one point, which is no longer available. However, the majority of it was written today (and focuses on books from over ten years ago anyway), so it's not particularly important that it's a few months old:

Lately, I've had to scour a bunch of books on gaming as part of a written assignment, hoping to find anything that would help me with a hypothetical game proposal (e.g. - info on target audiences, costs, number of people in the development team, etc.). I found a few interesting perspectives from women working within the industry. Nothing groundbreaking but also not the typical opinions we read on gaming sites.

"Additionally, as you’re proofreading, keep your audience in mind. Does the press release appeal to your audience? While your ultimate audience is the person reading the news, your first audience is the gaming press. Who are these people? Well, they’re males— mostly. When asked about the male/female ratio of game reviewers at Gamespot, Andrew Park noted that, “currently it’s infinity, which is what you get when you divide by zero.” While the age range of the gaming press is typically viewed as very young, Park reports the average age of Gamespot reviewers as mid-20s to early 30s. Aishoshi of IGN sees an age range of 16 to mid-50s. He also notes the male to female ratio as “about five males to one female over the course of our existence.” Take a glance down the editor photos in a PC Gamer and you’ll see a row of seven white, male faces and, at least at the time this article was written, one female face.

So, what does all that mean in terms of your press release? Not to say that these guys aren’t in touch with their feminine side, but your best bet will be to focus on the “dude!” elements of your story. How many levels? How many Mechs? How many weapons? Any intense bands on the soundtrack? While the number of female gamers appears to be growing, like it or not, until more women join the ranks of the gaming media, you should probably focus on the guy-appealing aspects of your game."
- Beverly Cambron, Secrets Of The Game Business (2002)

Last week, I was reading a blog over at Vicsor's Opinion about female representation in games and Vicsor brought up a game that I'd completely forgotten about over the last few months; Remember Me, the game that was at the centre of a Penny Arcade report about games starring female protagonists supposedly only being granted 40% of the marketing budget of a game starring a male protagonist. I don't think I mentioned that at the time but, if that's the case, it's pretty despicable that a publisher would actually designate more funding to games with male heroes. Yes, that is a significant case of women being held back in the games industry and everyone suffers because of it; we receive fewer interesting, varied protagonists and it shows a low opinion of the audience. Although I think it'd be interesting to see the budget breakdown of a game like Tomb Raider (2013), to see exactly how it can star a female character but need over five million sales to succeed. Although that's obviously the exception rather than the rule.

Vicsor's blog was in a similar vein. He took a look at the different representations of male and female characters and I like that we share the same opinions on varied characters. However, Vicsor did something that I can't believe so few others have thought to do, me included; look at the game sales. Although we'd need to look at more sales figures to see if there was a correlation, it did establish that in spite of the Penny Arcade report raising its stature, Remember Me still failed to sell. In spite of the criticism directed at cynical marketing teams, people didn't buy Remember Me to avoid turning the "people don't buy games with female protagonists" belief into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The marketing and sales figures for games starring female protagonists is a chicken-and-egg situation; does a lack of marketing cause them to have low sales or do low sales lead publishers to give them a smaller marketing budget?

Beverly Cambron's quote above doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know but it's interesting to know that developers write press releases for the sake of the reviewers as well as the mainstream audience. It makes me wonder if and how marketing for games has changed since 2002. Part of me thinks that, with diversity and gender issues in gaming becoming a bigger issue, this kind of cynical stereotyping of audiences would've died down ... but with the prevalence of the "stubbled male protagonist, face-pointing-down, eyes-pointing-up" pose on box art, it feels like the opposite. As Cambron's quote above shows, this isn't an accident; it's clear that marketing teams know they're pandering to some "dudebro" audience and stereotyping gamers (particularly male ones) as a marketing tactic. Ken Levine said much the same thing when defending the box art for Bioshock Infinite, saying that the design was made following visits to "frathouses and places like that". The reason behind this is the same one that was directed at Anita Sarkeesian about why certain female portrayals and plot devices exist; because the games industry is a business, with developers intending to make money. It might be unfortunate but if something works, why change it? In fact, if the cover of Bioshock Infinite and other games are anything to go by, it must've been a marketing tactic that was so successful that developers begun to emphasise the "'dude!' elements" a lot more.

I have to admit, part of me also wanted to include the Beverly Cambron quote as a response to the people who used to tell me, "don't you know that negative male portrayals are made by men?!" as if that somehow made it justifiable. It's unrealistic to assume any situation in gaming we currently dislike is the fault of either sex specifically.

Currently, according to Beverly's Twitter feed, "My game industry days are (happily) over".

Portrayals & Character Design

"There are stereotypes that people in the past have gone with that we have moved away from now. I don’t know that it’s necessarily because we’re trying to appeal more to the female market, or whether we’re just growing up as an industry. In a role-playing game now you wouldn’t want to have a halfnaked barbarian girl be your reward for some victory or whatever. We try to keep really blatant sexism out of it. I think that’s come because we’re more grown up as an industry, but it may be because Stormfront in particular is very sensitive to gender issues. We always have been, from when the company started.

Still, we always try to make the player characters in games, the protagonists, feel heroic and be of heroic proportions. In other words, if I’m playing a game and I as a woman decide to play a male character, I don’t necessarily want to see a weedy, weak-looking guy. I want to play a big barbarian. And if I’m playing a female character, I want to play a very attractive, strong, dynamic-looking woman. I think no matter what gender a player character is, you want their representation on-screen to be heroic, to be superhuman. I don’t mean like Superman, but more idealized than a real human would be.

In game stories these days, stereotypes are being broken down a lot more. There aren’t just weak women and strong men. There are also strong women and weak men. There are evil women, there are evil men. It’s a lot more even. There are a lot more women in gaming now, more women players. So it may just be an evolution of the culture that we’re reflecting as well. I’ve read some figures that seem to indicate women players tend to dislike complex interfaces, and so it may be part of the broader movement towards making simpler interfaces that’s brought in a larger female audience."
- Sarah Stocker, Swords and Circuitry: A Designer's Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games (2002)

I think Sarah Stocker gets to the heart of what "escapism" is with these paragraphs. She describes exactly why we can (or should) accept exaggerated portrayals in games, in much the same way we do with comic book characters. I've heard female gamers on Youtube make the same comments about how characters of both sexes are exaggerated but it's refreshing to read these views from a woman actually working within the games industry.

I've been incredibly critical of the "male power fantasy" argument made by feminist critics in the past -- the idea that women in games are exaggerated because of sexism and objectification but men in games are exaggerated because "men want to look like that" -- and it's interesting to read Stocker's perspective on it. Unlike me, she supports the "power fantasy" argument but also states that it isn't gender-specific.

The theory that stereotypes are being broken down more and more is an interesting one. Remember that the above paragraphs were written in 2002 and, after a quick look at the games released in 2001 on Wikipedia, I can see why Sarah Stocker would make that claim. To be fair, I don't know when Stocker's piece for the book was written -- it could've been long before 2002, depending on how long it took for the book to be published -- but in 2001, we had prominent games such as:
  • Max Payne - Female antagonist.
  • Jak & Daxter - Male and female antagonist, featured a female mechanic as a supporting character.
  • Half-Life: Decay - The PS2 version of Half-Life, featuring an extra co-op mode where both playable characters were female.
  • Grand Theft Auto 3 - Female antagonist, "heroic" female criminals (such as Asuka, who provides the player with missions).
  • Onimusha: Warlords - Playable male and female characters, evil male and female characters, male and female damsels in distress.
  • Virtua Fighter 4 - Introduced female character Vanessa Lewis, with an unconventional muscular design.
  • Ico - Certainly broke stereotypes about protagonists and damsels in distress, making the player care about the characters involved.
  • Serious Sam - Parodied traditional stereotypes about big, strong, "manly" male heroes.
  • Alien Vs Predator 2 - Heroic male and female marines, female secondary antagonist in the marine storyline and, as in all Alien games, the Alien Queen is an antagonist.
  • Fatal Frame/Project Zero - Female hero, female antagonist, male damsel in distress.
  • Final Fantasy X - Several female protagonists, a female antagonist (Yunalesca), practically everyone is a damsel in distress at some point.
I'd also add Metal Gear Solid 2 to the list, since I think Olga, Fortune and Emma Emmerich are all strong female characters in their own way but that's more of a judgment call; they all die by the end of the game and I'm sure people would take issue with Olga being sexualised at the start of of the game (even though, y'know, the end of the game features the player controlling a naked Raiden). Oh, and there's also Oni, which has a female protagonist but I've never played it (so maybe she's portrayed horribly. Let me know in the comments if you've played Oni). I just thought I'd bring it up because that game looks awesome and I'm tempted to try it out ...

Anyway, what we should take away from all of this -- as well as the depression that comes from knowing we might never see a gaming year as good as 2001 again in our lifetimes -- is that Sarah Stocker's comments about stereotypes being broken is understandable because of the games on offer in 2001. I'm sure that people could just as easily point to Dead Or Alive 3 as an example of the opposite but that particular series skew the statistics regardless of the year we're looking at. As an example, if we look at the games released ten years later, in 2011, a Dead Or Alive game appears on the list again. It's fair to say that DOA is a series that is never going to break any stereotypes.

I'm not going to pretend that I've played as many games on the 2011 list as I have on the 2001 list but, from what I can see, I don't see as many stereotypes being broken. When it comes to gender issues, L.A. Noire, Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Batman: Arkham City seem to be reasonably by-the-numbers when it comes to stereotypical portrayals when it came to male heroes and villains -- sometimes remarkably, in the case of Arkham City -- but Dragon Age II and Uncharted 3 both featured female antagonists. The thing is, all of these games featured strong female characters (except perhaps L.A. Noire, from what I can recall), so that's certainly a quality that has stuck since Stocker's remarks in 2002.

However, when it comes to male portrayals, am I the only one who feels like things feel stagnant? The portrayals of female characters in Arkham City are very different from those in Final Fantasy XIII-2, which are just as different from those in Dragon Age II. With the exception of Nathan Drake -- a favourite protagonist of mine for being a character that doesn't take himself too seriously, which is a rare quality in the days where the "Stubble McBadass" archetype looms over the games industry (to use a term from Michelle Clough) -- I feel like stereotypes for men have become more entrenched rather than broken down. 2011 was also the year when we saw Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 released, just to hammer the point home. The women are varied, the men are similar.

I don't want it to seem like I'm cherry-picking my examples here and this is by no means a comprehensive list or study; like I said, I haven't played as many games from 2011 and I'm sure that if we looked at the 2001 list, we could see plenty of examples of male protagonists that are incredibly similar to the ones picked from 2011. Unfortunately, it does feel like stereotypes are the order of the day for male characters. Why? Possibly due to a lack of a push for varied male characters as there has been for female ones or maybe it's for the same reasons that Beverly Cambron focused on the "'dude!' elements" and Ken Levine appealed to frathouse gamers; they're the characters that sell games. I find it hard to believe that having a few more male characters in the vein of Ico and a few less in the vein of gravelly-voiced Cole McGrath of Infamous would be the worst thing in the world. Although considering the difference in how those games performed, sales-wise, I may be wrong ...

As an example of how male stereotypes are still alive and well in the games industry, let's take a look at a series that is ongoing right now; The Wolf Among Us from Telltale Games, developer of The Walking Dead. Similar to TWD, The Wolf Among Us is released in different "episodes" and, as of the latest episode, there's only one female villain but every single adult male human character is a scumbag in one way or another. Whereas the women are level-headed, independent, strong-willed and often victimised, the men are pimps, thugs, torturers, murderers, perverts, thieves and stalkers. Again, it feels like stereotypes have been broken down for women -- who are often portrayed as just trying to make a living -- while the men are just brutish or slimy, fighting each other rather than getting things done. The women are mature, the men are neanderthals.

One final thing about that Sarah Stocker quote. This last part:

"I’ve read some figures that seem to indicate women players tend to dislike complex interfaces, and so it may be part of the broader movement towards making simpler interfaces that’s brought in a larger female audience."
I only included this due to the long-standing rumour that Anita Sarkeesian felt "a lot of female did not get into [Mirror's Edge] due to its difficult control scheme". I certainly don't believe that difficult controls will prevent any gamer, male or female, from playing a game -- and I'm not the only one -- and I think it's insulting towards female gamers to suggest that it is. However, I've pasted Sarah Stocker's quote about interfaces anyway, just because I thought it was relevant. I should also point out that it's not clear whether Anita did or didn't say that line about the controls in Mirror's Edge; due to the fact that she doesn't allow people to film her talks about gaming (only the talks about harassment), we have to rely on second-hand information and then wait for Anita's inevitable "don't believe everything you read online" tweet.

Sarah Stocker is formerly of Stormfront Studios and, as far as I can tell, currently works as a senior producer for Sony Computer Entertainment America.


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