Monday, 23 November 2015

Circular Logic (aka, Let's Blame the Feminists for Gaming Sexism)

So recently my morning started off in fantastic fashion as one of my friends on Facebook shared a forum post by Merlynn132 which blamed feminists for the issues with female representation in video games (click on the picture for the full-sized image):


Now admittedly, I actually found this guy's points to be quite interesting at first glance and there may actually be some kernels of wisdom in here. However, the more I thought about the points that he was actually making, the more I realized that his argument is fundamentally flawed and falls apart under just a little scrutiny. So you know what time it is then, good reader: it's time for yet another I Choose to Stand feminism post!

One big disclaimer before we move on though. I get the distinct feeling that Merlyn132 is directing some of these criticism specifically towards Anita Sarkeesian, but unfortunately its context has been removed to make it "shareable". Admittedly, I haven't looked into Sarkeesian's criticisms myself, although I have found some of her examples to be at least somewhat suspect. If this post is intended to be a direct response to specific criticisms that Sarkeesian has made, then that's fair enough (I would still disagree with its ultimate conclusion, but I could at least get behind some of its points). However, the tone and body of the post is written in such a way that it ends up being directed at feminism in general, which makes it fair game for a general response as far as I'm concerned. The lack of overall context for the post is unfortunate, so be sure to keep that in mind as the reality of the original post may somehow be shifted if we could see the whole conversation it was a part of.



As usual with this kind of criticism, Merlynn132's first problem seems to be a lack of understanding of what feminists are actually campaigning for. His critique opens up with a statement that female characters aren't allowed to have negative traits or feminists will cry out "sexism". This could actually be the case with Sarkeesian based on some of the examples that I have heard her use for Feminist Frequency, but even that could be a misunderstanding of her intent when using these examples. As I have written previously, these examples are likely not intended to be blanket moratoriums, but rather ways to make writers make more deliberate choices when they write characters and to avoid lazy stereotypes (such as objectification, sexual violence for shock value or the desire to "fridge" a female character to give the male lead a motivation). An example of this in action would be the Tomb Raider games. Critics (not just including feminists) complained for a long time about how ridiculous Lara Croft's boobs were, for good reason. However, they also praised Lara Croft for being a great character, in spite of the game constantly sexualizing her. Consequently, when Crystal Dynamics rebooted the Tomb Raider series, their much more realistically-proportioned Lara Croft was praised as she was still a very interesting character with a much less garish visual design to go along with it. Despite what Merlynn132 would suggest, this actually earned Crystal Dynamics two separate purchases of the game from me (not to mention that I'm eagerly anticipating the end of the Xbox One's exclusivity deal on Rise of the Tomb Raider, whereas before I wouldn't have even looked twice at a Tomb Raider game). All of this is comes down to Crystal Dynamics deciding to listen to their critics and making a better product for it.

Let's tackle Merlynn132's assertion directly though, that women can't have a negative trait or it will be deemed sexism. Merlynn132's own examples are less-interested in physical traits and more in reference to their character, so we'll leave objectification out of this. I'll address his second example first because it is just flat out wrong. He claims that women aren't allowed to be mentally unhinged as they walk across a hellish battlefield, but this is just not true. Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot is made far more interesting as she feels remorse as she is forced to kill for the first time (although the gameplay-narrative dissonance in this aspect is annoying admittedly). I also just replayed Metal Gear Solid for my upcoming retrospective series, and found Meryl Silverburgh's admission that killing for the first time made her not want to be a soldier anymore to be a fantastic character moment. If anything, I find it offensive that more men aren't given this sort of treatment, as most big shooters just force you to stupidly mow down hundreds of enemies like a psychopath (with the Uncharted series being one of the most egregious offenders in this regard).


The first example that Merlynn132 gives is that men are allowed to be lecherous drunks, but women are not, because "sexism". "Sexualizing women and what all" as he puts it. This is an example that I can actually see possibly happening, but the context of the character is probably the most important part in whether it will be accepted or not. Does her character start and stop at "lecherous drunk", or does she have some actual depth? Are they a main character? Or are they background dressing that exists just to give the player something to ogle at? Such considerations make all the difference in this sort of situation, as there is no quick-and-easy answer. It's also worth pointing out that there's a contextual difference as well, since men are rarely sexualized in video games whereas women are quite frequently. Since it's so prevalent for women to be reduced to sex objects, it can come across as very lazy if you put in a lecherous drunk background character unless you're being very deliberate when doing so. Think of it this way: if I made a white character who loves watermelon and picks cotton, it would be fine. However, if that character was instead black, it would obviously be ridiculously offensive. This is because meanings change based on the contexts that they are placed within, so you have to be aware when you're falling into a stereotype and, if you are aware, you have to have good reason for doing so.

Merlynn132's third example revolves around a theoretical situation where Guybrush Threepwood is replaced with a female protagonist in Escape From Monkey Island. He is convinced that "Galwood" would never be allowed because she would be a cowardly, weak and socially awkward character hated by everyone around her. Personally, I'm not entirely convinced that this would cause a feminist uproar or even be considered sexist for that matter (depending on how the game handles these elements in a female context, as I said before). For one thing, this sort of character actually sounds rather interesting and would fit into the very different sort of characterization which feminist critics have been asking for for ages. I can't be the only one who thinks that this description fits Amanda Ripley, the extremely well-received heroine of Alien: Isolation, right? Ripley is a strong, positive female character, not because she is a Markus Fenix-style meathead, but rather because she is absolutely terrified, avoids confrontation as much as possible and just tries to stay alive by being resourceful.


Secondly, Escape From Monkey Island was just a poor example for Merlynn132 to use for this argument. The main thrust of Merlynn132's overall argument is that feminists are actually being sexist, and by being sexist they are making female-led games economically unviable. Using the Monkey Island games to support this idea is very strange to me as they are hardly a mega-selling franchise. In fact, the Monkey Island games have far more in common with the modern day indie-game scene where female-led games are far more common and interesting than in the AAA blockbuster space. I can't even remember the last time that we had a proper adventure game, although Quantic Dream and Telltale-style narrative adventures seem to be the closest analogue... and what do you know, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Beyond: Two Souls and Until Dawn all tend to have pretty solid, flawed and interesting female characters without causing a feminist uproar.

The third, and probably most ridiculous, aspect of the argument is in regards to Merlynn132's conclusion. Basically, they believe that feminists force female characters into a very specific mold, which makes female characters boring, which doesn't sell, which is why we don't have female characters leading our games. This is just so obviously bullshit that I shouldn't really have to explain why... but will, naturally. The games market would be boring if there were more female-led games? Seriously? The market has ALWAYS been dominated by male characters, many of whom are the exact same macho-fantasy repackaged over and over again (Contra, every Call of Duty ever, Gears of War, Booker in Bioshock Infinite as the generic/requisite action game hero, etc). Despite featuring the same stereotypical leads over and over again, they still continue to sell and are often some of the highest-selling games of the year. It's not feminists' fault that female-led games are in the minority, it's because publishers believe that their teenage male target demographic won't play unless they offer them a male fantasy.


Just to look into this claim a little further, I decided to check the list of best selling video games of all time. I was actually surprised to discover that most of these games feature no distinct characters at all, either being 100% gameplay-based (Tetris) or 100% player determinant (Minecraft). Only three franchises dominate the list. Mario has the most entries, with 8 games selling over 15 million copies each. I think you'd be hard pressed to say that Mario has a personality that is anything other than boring, not to mention that the franchise formulas of his various franchises have been nearly the exact same for well over 20 years now. Call of Duty comes in second with 7 games selling over 15 million copies. The franchise is notorious for featuring paper-thin characters, iterating very lightly from game-to-game and for its macho-fantasy, male-dominated plots. While I, along with many others, would definitely argue that this franchise has gotten extremely tired in the last few years, the fact that the series still continues to sell is proof enough to me that the claim that "boring" female characters are the reason why they don't get any representation is bullshit. The third highest-selling franchise is Grand Theft Auto with 5 games, and it's a bit of an oddity since these games actually are known for their interesting characters and writing. However, I have a strong feeling that this is not the main reason why these games have had so much success, but rather that their core gameplay is extremely appealing. If this is truly the case, then the picture that these three franchises and the characterless mega-sellers paints for me is that characters are not a major factor in determining the success of a game, but rather fun gameplay. As a result, whether or not a "feminist conspiracy" caused female characters to end up being a bunch of bland copies, it shouldn't matter because we already have a bunch of bland male copies running around and raking in the cash. Of course, if the actual argument being made is that "real gamers" don't want to buy games with female protagonists, then at least be honest...

As I said in the opening paragraphs, I don't really know the exact circumstances that prompted Merlynn132's original post, but I kind of wish that I could understand where his perspective is drawn from. Is he directly responding to arguments made my Sarkeesian? As I have hopefully shown, his arguments will still end up being incorrect in the end, but if Sarkeesian's arguments are just as flawed then that might make a difference in the way that this is all handled. Or perhaps Merlynn132 just misunderstands the whole point of feminism, having equated feminism with the opinions of its more extreme or unlearned factions, or worse, with the gigantic strawman feminist which is so often evoked in these sorts of rebuttals. In all honesty though, I'm glad that I came across this post. While I think that the overall argument is extremely flawed, it is quite interesting and is a good reminder that feminists could actually hurt their own cause sometimes with their critiques. I hope that Merlynn132 is open to this sort of critique, as I think that both sides in this debate could learn things from one another and hopefully come to a point where we can understand one another.

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