Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What Can We Do About Video Games....

Note: I'm currently guest blogging for the week over at feministe. This was a post I put up earlier today, crossposted here, and at 79Soul.... Enjoy...

As some of you may have noticed in my bio that Jill posted, I'm a self proclaimed geek. One thing that I'm particularly passionate about is video gaming. I've been a huge gamer for almost as long as I can remember. My father purchased one of our first gaming systems, waaay back in the 2600 days. I can still remember the first computer that my folks had- it used a cassette tape as data storage- and the games I used to play on it (basically, a really primitive version of Space Invaders... only, with a single enemy). I still remember the sense of excitement and wonder when my parents brought home the ol' Tandy computer- it had color graphics and a floppy drive. That was a big deal. Twenty plus years, multiple computers, and over ten platforms later, I'm still an avid gamer.

In the over two decades that I've been playing, gaming has changed tremendously- systems are more powerful, the graphics are prettier, the controls are better, and the stories they can tell are more involved and interesting. Lately, I've been particularly interested in the stories. As a feminist, and a philosophy student, I'm particularly interested in the intersection of gaming and morality/ethics. Not in a casual "games are corrupting our society" sort of way- but in the ways that games contribute to and are effected by our society, and the ways that we can explore and learn about complicated moral issues through the use of games.


For all that games have the ability to raise interesting and challenging moral and ethical issues, I'm forced to admit that a lot of them have a long way to go. Sexism and racism are still really common in games- and not just in the really explicit Grand Theft Auto sense. Honestly, Grand Theft Auto is almost the least of my concerns- it's so blatantly sexist and racist, that it's easy to avoid it, and it's really easy to criticize and make a case for why I object to it. The problem with video gaming is that some of the sexism and racism is harder to make people grasp. For me, the problem becomes: how do I reconcile my progressive values with the undercurrent (and overcurrent) of sexism and racism that surround gaming? How do I help change things?

For a long time, one of the major complaints about gaming was the inability to play as a woman. That is: The majority of the playable characters in video games have been men. That's been the case since gaming became popular. There are a few exceptions, of course- Samus from Metroid, for example- but the bulk of the heroes in games are men. As gaming has matured, the option to play as a woman has become more common. Fighting games might have been the first genre to make ready use of playable female characters. I think that every major fighting game has at least a handful of playable women. Of course, men still outnumber the women, and whites dominate racially.

Even when you do get the option to play as a woman, though, you're still hard pressed to escape from some pretty sexist depictions. Consider this article on the case of World of Warcraft- the most popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game). I'm not much of a RPG fan, but Moira, over at Feminist Gamers took a look at the Final Fantasy games' portrayal of women, and it doesn't look like they're much better, despite being, arguably, the most popular RPG series ever made.

Women in fighting games are often even worse- the popular fighting game series Dead or Alive thrives on the blatantly sexual way that the women are presented. The makers of the DoA series take pride in the "breast physics" of the game, and the myriad of hyper sexualized costume choices that the game offers for the female characters. Looking across the multitude of fighting games, and you'll find that the majority of them feature women in costumes that hypersexualize them while the men tend to be dressed more appropriately for whatever role they're in.

In terms of race, a lot of games don't do any better. When I took a look through the games I own- in excess of 100 titles- I could only find a couple of games that feature non-white or non-Asian playable characters. The majority of the games I own featured white heroes, with a few games about Samurai or Ninja featuring Japanese characters. The only games that featured black or Hispanic players were fighting games, and even those were, sadly, rare. According to microscopiq, there have been all of eleven black main characters.


Five of those are either games based on black characters from movie properties, or black celebs. And one- Jade, from Beyond Good and Evil- is pretty racially ambiguous.

The problem is how to make people realize that there's a problem, when there are so many vocal gaming fans who argue that this isn't a problem. Browse through some of the more popular gaming sites and you're likely to find that, when it comes up at all, feminist or anti-racist concerns about gaming are met with the same dismissals as most feminist concerns are. The criticisms are dismissed with a wave of the hand and a "games are made by men for men, so of course women are sexualized- we like looking at naked/mostly naked women," or some other all too common justification. They point to the few games that do feature strong female characters as though that excuses the rampant misogyny of other games. Voices condemning the racism withing games are all but absent from mainstream conversations.

Add to that the fact that the most vocal critics of video games tend to be people like Jack Thompson or NIMF (the National Institute on Media and the Family) who accuse video games of being murder simulators or promoting cannibalism- and you'll find that a lot of gamers are particularly hostile towards criticism of gaming, even from fellow gamers. Women and feminists are made unwelcome in many gaming circles, and concerns about sexism and racism in games go unheard, ignored, or mocked.

I'm not sure what the solution is, yet, but I know that it's not silence.

What do we do about a game like, say, Soul Calibur 3?

On the one hand, most of the women are moderately to extremely sexualized, and there's a distinct lack of racial variety. On the other, the game includes a fairly robust character creation mode. In it, the player can make a woman who looks awesome, but is appropriately outfitted for combat- wearing armor that looks like armor, and not just a chain mail bikini. The women created by the company are rather lacking, but the ability to make your own is fantastic. Should they be rewarded for the creation mode, or punished for the sexist characters they start the player with?

And what form does that even take? Does not buying the game count as punishment? Do we write letters?

And, I think it's important to note, this is just a tiny slice of the bigotry that permeates video gaming. This doesn't touch on the transphobia and homophobia within games and that seems to be rampant amongst gamers, or the ways that online gamers harass women gamers, for example. This doesn't touch on the blatant sexism that many gaming magazines encourage and participate in when they publish pin-ups of various female characters, or when game manufacturers put their characters in Playboy.

As someone who is extremely invested in gaming culture, it's not easy for me to so harshly criticize my hobby. It's hard to admit that something I'm so involved with and have spent so much time, money, and energy in has so many problems, and is so hostile towards so many groups.

I guess I'm wondering- for gamers: what do you do to reconcile your love of gaming with the problems that exist in the gaming community? Do you do anything to try to change things or to fight the sexism/racism/homophobia that's so common, for example, in online gaming? And, what games would you suggest to feminist and anti-racist gamers?

For the non-gamers on here (if you've read this far): is there anything in particular about gaming that's kept you away? Were you aware of these issues? Is there something that would get you interested in gaming? What do you think can be done to help fight the bigotry in the gaming community?

Finally: I think that one of the most bothersome aspects of the conversation is how to make other gamers realize that criticisms of the sexism/racism/homophobia/transphobia within the games and within the culture surrounding the games is not the same as a criticism of gaming in general. That is: How do we convince other gamers that we want to improve games, not take them away? It seems like any time I've raised an objection or asked people to consider sexism or racism in games, there are people who think that I'm suggesting that games should be censored or that gaming as a hobby is wrong. There must be a way to get people to realize that a complaint about the problems is not a call to abolish gaming, right?



Aerik said...

I’m with you on this one as well. Not only is white–maleness the norm for video games, but it is also this way in anime, which is becoming more and more popular in America. In anime, even when the occasional non–white character emerges, the character suffers a multitude of stereotypes. Black men have absurdly large lips, are almost always bald, and often enough wear sunglasses so that the animators can avoid inadvertantly making them as cute and personable as the other characters. Black women are always over–sexualized or turned into the feminist stereotype if they are to have any significant character development (that is, if they are not one–episode tokens). Just look at Yoruichi’s popular fanart at Deviant Art. This is from an anime called Bleach. Check out Captain Tosen in all his blacky blackness.

And these stereotypes spill over into video games, which are mostly made in Japan. How can we be surprised when the stereotypes persist in American cartoons that rip off anime style drawing, such as the Teen Titans character Cyborg?

Even my favorite video game series of all time, Chrono Trigger > Radical Dreamers > Chrono Cross, features an entirely caucasian/asian cast, plus some animal hybrids and even one sapient robot. But black people? Nope. The female main characters consist of oen rebellious–princess and a cave–woman in a bikini and scarf.

Anorak said...

I am not a gamer.
I am also a woman.
I don't have a number-one reason why I never got into gaming, I just never did.
I guess it didn't ever interest me, and I am definitely turned off by the sexism and violence of the few games I've seen, but that isn't why I'm not interested, it's more benign, like, I'm not really into water-skiing.
I don't hate it, it's just not something I do.
So I guess my comment isn't really answering your question...sorry!

Roy said...

Not only is white–maleness the norm for video games, but it is also this way in anime, which is becoming more and more popular in America.

I have to disagree with this point. The danger here is in assuming that, because we as Americans see anime characters as white, the creators and Japanese audiences see them as white. There are a number of articles that explore why anime characters tend to be drawn they way they are, but the overwhelming concensus seems to be that neither the makers nor the Japanese viewers of anime and manga see the majority of the characters as white. The use of large eyes in anime is not a signifier of whiteness, but a means of expressing emotion that goes back decades. I'll look for some of the articles, but you can probably find some of them if you search online for articles about whiteness in anime.

Just look at Yoruichi’s popular fanart at Deviant Art. This is from an anime called Bleach. Check out Captain Tosen in all his blacky blackness.

This, however, I agree with. Anime frequently uses tired stereotypes to cue viewers into racial differences. Sadly, though, this extends to American forms of animation, as well. Look at the representations of Asian characters in many shows- exagerated eyes, yellow skin, and "traditional" garb will come up as often as not.

Still, that's an interesting angle- it would make sense that video games- a relatively young medium- would pick up a lot of convention from some other geek-centric medium. Like animation.

Thanks for commenting, aerik! Very thoughtful analysis!

And no apologies needed anorak- that gaming never really appealed to use is reasonably response. =D

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to note that Bleach itself is a bad example, though its fanbase isn't. (all the 'power battle' type animes with ki/chakra/spiritual energy/magic tends to attract the same crowd, almost 80-90% overlap)
Yoruichi's shall we say, unused to wearing clothing of any kind, but she certainly wouldn't pose like those first two! The beach one is more accurate in regards to her personality. It would be better to tackle Bleach on females in general, like Nemu Kurotsuchi who enjoys getting beaten by her father and defends him fiercely against anyone who interrupts it, and that's just the tip of the iceberg for those two. Ho-kay, whatever. Also Rangiku is pretty void of personality, being thrown in as 'an extra rack, and the biggest.' Typical fanservice female. It doesn't feel forced for Yoyo to walk around like that since it's part of her personality.

Plus she's actually a very dark-skinned Indian/SEasian (see: extreme similarity with Anthy from Utena) Only actual black female I can remember offhand that's not a one-shot is Claudia from Macross/Robotech
(note that there's tons of 'ganguros' however, usually extremely hyper to the point of being obliviously stupid like Mihoshi off Tenchi or Kaolla Su off Love Hina)

Anyway as one final addition I think the fact there's so few black male celebs living there, or who've come there, is why they idolize certain styles of drawing them past the blackface days. If he's big and beefy, it's intended that he's Bob Sapp or George Foreman, if he's smaller, but a real thug/punk, Mike Tyson (Street fighter especially), the 'noble black guy' is taken from Howard Jackson, and so on. Can't remember who was the lanky stereotype body model. Anything in between is based on that guy from Dragon: A Bruce Lee Story. It's best just to think of most non-japan-centric anime as an extention of US pop culture, thanks to the occupation, and unfortunately it hasn't changed since that time save for a few additional celebs either.

Demexii said...

That is what gamers want. They want girls with little clothing and game makers gear it towards them. If there were more girl gamers I am sure they would gear certain aspects, or even entire games, to what they would enjoy. It is media and I would rather have a cute girl fighting with some big bad guy then some normal looking girl. The only difference is if it allows me to make a character which I would then use to make my girlfriend. I enjoy watching her face when see comes over and I kill off the character or make it do something wrong or bad.

Veronica said...

Ah, I see. A total troll.

badspyro said...

As a games dev student, I totaly agree.

The way the vast majority orf characters are shown is degradeing to either gender, as the males tend to be 'jocks' and neaderthols and the women are either stone cold killers or from the planet playboy, following more steriotypes than you can shake a stick at, and that's before we get onto LGBT issues.

My current problem though, is getting source material for a character that is NOT white or asian, i.e. I'm trying to create an indian woman, and finding the right source material is impossible.