The Narrow-Mindedness of the ‘Accepted Wisdom’

Today’s guest post is by Sarah Argodale, a young student who is getting ready to start her Master’s degree in Public Policy/Administration. In her spare time, she likes to write about feminism and video games. You can follow her here.

A recent Rock Paper Shotgun interview with the lead writer of Dragon Age III tackles the issue of accepted sexism in the gaming industry. The whole interview is worth a read, but the crux of the argument is that the gaming industry makes excuses for not pursuing boarder gender representation, because it ‘doesn’t sell.’ I see this flawed argument come up a lot in the games industry and community; it’s absolutely infuriating. It is little more than an excuse to keep operating inside a very narrow and limiting idea of who buys and plays video games.

As a female gamer, it’s incredibly disheartening to see female characters being purposefully downplayed in the marketing of a video game, because developers fear that the presence of a woman might negatively impact their sales. It’s even more disheartening when the developers who are erasing women from their advertisements are ones you usually respect and admire. Bioshock Infinite provides a perfect example.

A well dressed white man with a gun slung over his shoulder, standing before a slowly burning American flag.

Bioshock Infinite’s cover.

Most people are probably already familiar with the dust up that occurred when Irrational Games released the cover art for their much-anticipated game that would, among many other things, feature a prominent female character named Elizabeth. Instead of alluding to any of the interesting aspects of the new Bioshock universe, the cover merely featured a generic picture of the male protagonist Booker DeWitt, with Elizabeth completely absent.

Ken Levine, the creative director of Irrational Games, defended the decision to choose a less than thrilling cover and, after some residual grumbling, the ‘controversy’ faded away. Even I wasn’t that bothered by it, and it was quickly forgotten.

Sadly, the issue of marketing video games and women came roaring back this year during the PAX East convention, when I attended Levine’s Bioshock panel. One of the female audience members directly questioned Irrational’s decision to not include Elizabeth—a female character that the Irrational panel had just spent an hour praising—on the game’s cover. Levine shared the same story I’ve seen him mention in other interviews: that he initially did not buy System Shock 1—a game that obviously had a huge impact on his life—because he was turned off by the cover, and that if fans of the Bioshock franchise wanted it to keep existing, they would have to accept that the game needed to sell. He ended by saying to not worry about the cover, but instead to just “play the fucking game,” which was met with raucous cheers from the crowd (mostly men) sitting around me. I sat there and listened as people happily applauded a woman being shot down for expressing her discomfort over how her gender is marginalized in a community she loves.

In Levine’s defense, he quickly apologized on Twitter after the panel. I know that he’d been fielding variations on this same question for months at this point, and a PAX panel was probably not the best forum to restart this discussion. I don’t want to lay all the blame for how women marketed in games at Levine and Irrational’s feet—that would be unfair. But, his defense props up the ‘accepted wisdom’ that so many other game devs tout when they explain why they can’t put their female characters in any prominent advertising. It’s an incredibly insulting idea that women in games mean the game won’t sell; not only to women, but to men as well. Because, seriously, what kind of troglodyte is incapable of enjoying something because it has a female protagonist? Who are these people and why does the gaming industry continue to defer to them? If the success of your game depends on appealing to a group whose worldview will not allow them to accept a prominent female presence in their media, then maybe you should develop a more nuanced, less regressive marketing strategy.

How a game is marketed is incredibly important, because it heavily influences what types of games get made. If devs unquestioningly accept that a female character is unmarketable, then why would they even try and diverge from the homogenous male character standard that exists in most games? It’s clear that considerations like this do happen and have an actual impact on what games are developed. Just look at the development history of Remember Me—a game that features a female protagonist; publishers rejected it out of hand because they did not believe that a female character could sell. Irrational may have not have gone as far as to completely cut their female character from the game, but by not including Elizabeth on the cover, they certainly helped to perpetuate the same status quo that almost stopped Remember Me from even getting made.

I’m glad that people like the Dragon Age team are standing up to the conventional wisdom and refusing to submit to marketing canards that may have been true 15 years ago, but have absolutely no place today, when half of the games community is made up of women. I really believe that the industry is heading in a better, more egalitarian direction and that in ten years this hesitation over marketing female characters will be laughable. But for now, it’s important that men and women in the industry and the community continue to vocally and financially support the idea that a female presence is not going to completely tank sales. That’s the only way we’ll ever be able to prove how utterly wrong this ‘accepted wisdom’ really is.

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33 Responses to The Narrow-Mindedness of the ‘Accepted Wisdom’

  1. Lassarina says:

    This is sort of fascinating to me as a person who primarily plays JRPGs; I was just thinking back over several of the series I’ve loved over the years, and FF is coming strongly to mind. The first six games had stylized covers that didn’t feature a character at all; FF7 has Cloud, but 8, 9, 12, and the 13s all feature at least one female character on the cover, if my memory serves me correctly. (I am still irked, though, that 10 features Tidus and not Yuna; at least X-2, for all its other faults, has the protagonists on the cover.)

    • Generally, the Japanese and European Final Fantasy covers are just the Logo on a white background. In the US, the covers are re-made for the US audience. Publishers believe that covers MUST have the protagonists on them in order to sell in the US.

      • Lassarina says:

        Huh, interesting. I knew about the Japanese covers having the logo on the white background, but I didn’t realize it was the same in Europe. But I do distinctly remember (because I still have the damn boxes, I am the world’s most amazing pack rat) that FF2 and FF3 on the SNES (i.e. 4 and 6) had logo-on-black.

      • Korva says:

        Interesting. If I think about game covers, I have to say that my “favourite” covers certainly don’t the protagonist.

        Now admittedly part of that is the fact that I’m sick and tired of the array of utterly indistinguishable 30-something grizzled brown-haired white macho dudebros that usually get cast into the (canon) protagonist role. Just as I’m beyond sick and tired of sexploitation of what few female characters get any sort of promotion.

        But beside that, I simply feel more attracted to a well-chosen logo or symbol because it’s unique, while tits and stubble are common as muck and boring. I think I’d feel this way even if the industry was less disgustingly sexist, even if I was part of the “target audience” or of any concern to the marketing crews. Don’t show me the protagonist. Show me something special about your setting and your story. Show me something memorable.

  2. Not having been at GDC, I’m confused why the Dragon Age team is being championed as a positive example? Didn’t Dragon Age 2 also have just the white, male protagonist on the cover.

  3. Ethan Gach says:

    “Who are these people and why does the gaming industry continue to defer to them? If the success of your game depends on appealing to a group whose worldview will not allow them to accept a prominent female presence in their media, then maybe you should develop a more nuanced, less regressive marketing strategy.”

    The pressumption (by the companies) seems to be that “these people” are ones who buy lots of games, or are more likely to be potential consumers of a game than other people.

    If that’s not the case, and there is room for “nuanced, less regressive marketing” to effectively sell a game like Bioshock to alternative audiences, where could we go to find evidence of this?

    If the Levines of the world are contending that X game with Y budget can only get made if it sells Z, and it will only sell Z if the game is marketed to a certain predominant audience (young white males in search of having their masculinity reinforced by identificaiton with a singularly featured, traditionally “masculine” protagonist) , we need to either show that A, we can sell Z by making up for a drop off in sales to the “predominant” audience with stronger sales to other potential audiences (women, minorities, older people), or that the sales lost by reaching out to, for instance, women will be severely overshadowed by those gained by doing so (i.e. few people if any will actually be alienated out of buying Bioshock Infinite if it sported Elizabeth on the box cover).

    As someone who also desperately wants the consumer base for games like Bioshock to be more diverse (and thus allow the games to be more diverse as well), I nevertheless have a hard time making a convincing argument that the potential market downsides are just figments of the companies’ imaginations–not least of all because the numbers supporting THEIR position are rarely ever available and I also don’t know much about the business of marketing and how it all works.

  4. Morgan Wolfe says:

    Four words: Lara Croft. Samus Aran.

    Look at Tomb Raider and Metroid, just as two top-of-the-head examples, and tell me again what a franchise killer a female protagonist is. Yes, they’re exceptions, but they prove that exceptions exist.

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, it is pretty ironic that the Remember Me story happened just after Tomb Raider made a very successful comeback.

  5. Fonbella says:

    Incredible article! I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve always been a fan of Bioshock, ever since the first one, and when I saw that Elizabeth was going to be an important character, I got really excited about it. I wished I could play as her, but I remember reading so many interviews about how her help would be crucial and how her AI was so very innovative and creative that I wound up forgetting about it and didn’t really mind playing as a generic dude if it meant seeing Elizabeth for everything she is. And you can go back and see many interviews about it – we may not play as Elizabeth, but everything related to the game is about her and how important she is. She may not be playable, but there is also no doubt that she is the protagonist. Regardless, I really didn’t mind it so much. But not including her in the cover? And no matter what excuse they gave, it was always a poor excuse for “Females on covers don’t sell”. How little faith can you have in your own project? Are you really downplaying your game, your gameplay, your years worth of research and work because you believe people are so simple-minded that they will refuse to play a game, no matter how good it may look, because the person on the covers has a pair of boobs?

    If that truly is the case, I have to wonder how the Tomb Raider franchise managed to survive over ten years.

  6. Doug S. says:

    Your “development history” link is a “mailto” link. Please fix. :(

  7. Doug S. says:

    Apparently, the film industry has the same problem; there was that one case not too long ago of a studio executive saying that he wasn’t going to finance movies that had female leads…

    • PandoraEve says:

      Yeah, it seems to as well. Note how every once in a while, they blame the failure of certain films on having a female (or non-white) lead, even if the film had other problems.
      Disney in particular had a very similar problem to the Bioshock example, there was a lot of discussion about how they focused the marketing of Tangled much more on the main guy in the movie, even though from what I’ve heard she’s a lot more of a protagonist than him.

  8. Cordate says:

    This reminds me of a piece I read some time ago about the same foolishness going on in Hollywood, this same kind of “Our audience wouldn’t like it if there wasn’t a Straight White Guy heading up the story” nonsense. Here’s a link to it:

    http://thehathorlegacy.com/why-film-schools-teach-screenwriters-not-to-pass-the-bechdel-test/

  9. Fonbella says:

    Speaking of female leads, it’s interesting how two amazing upcoming games – Beyond: Two Souls and Remember Me are leading this. Remember Me seemed to be the center of “Female leads can’t sell” articles, but I have yet to see any news, articles or reviews mentioning Beyond: Two Souls’ female protagonist, Jodie. In Beyond, it looks so natural that no one talks about it. Shouldn’t all games be treated as such regardless of their leading character? I know that in Remember Me’s case that it’s because the developer and publisher are two different companies, but I wonder if there had been no talks about how the game was shot down by multiples companies before hand, if it would have seemed more natural. My point is: people seem to be aware of the fact that Remember Me’s protagonist is a woman because of the talk behind it, whereas in Beyond, no one has really noticed, even through many different articles emphasizing Ellen Paige’s character in it.

    But back to the subject, it should also be noted that NaughtyDog’s The Last of Us features a woman in the cover (in the foreground, even) despite being lead by a male character, Even though NaughtyDog had been told to remove her from the cover because it “wouldn’t sell”, they stood by their idea of having Ellie in it, Irrational could learn a thing or two from them.

    • Alex says:

      For some reason I was under the impression that Ellen Paige’s character wasn’t the actual protagonist of Beyond but the central non-playable character, like Elizabeth or the girl from Last of Us. I’m not sure why I thought that…

  10. Doug S. says:

    “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” – John Maynard Keynes

  11. nescire says:

    As much as I loathe dudebro bald space marine cover art that currently dominates retail shelves, you’re fighting a loosing battle here.

    From 1987 with the NA cover art of Megaman, to the Playstation era where every cover was some godawful 3D render, to now where it’s always some variation of “dude with gun”, when have cover artworks for retail games not sucked? When has the marketing direction for a game ever been rooted in reality instead of publisher expectations? The marketing process is more akin to faith than anything else.

    Bioshock Infinite is pandering to an imaginary lowest common denominator with that cover and we can only lament the fact.

    • Gunthera1 says:

      I don’t think this is necessarily a “losing battle”. The fact that something is established doesn’t mean that it cannot change. It means it will take more of a fight to change it. Not ALL covers are just “dude with gun”. Not all covers suck. It may be a slow and steady improvement, but I would rather keep fighting for that improvement than give up entirely and accept the current situation. The industry is aware of the fans and does listen to outcry. If we stay silent, then they just assume we all love these kinds of covers.

    • Korva says:

      I don’t think it’s a losing battle. It’s perfectly possible to have cover art that “does not suck”. You don’t need a steroid hulk with a gun, and you don’t need naked bulging silicon-tits. The Baldur’s Gate series, which pretty much single-handedly revived a genre, had unique symbolic covers — and it is far from the only example. Many games or game series are deeply associated with a certain symbol or a certain font style. (Or with musical themes, for that matter, though you can’t put those on a cover. Blizzard sent fans into a screaming frenzy when they officially announced Diablo 3 just by playing the first strings of the Tristram theme. Everyone in the room knew EXACTLY what that meant.)

      • Maiaera says:

        Wasn’t the box art for the three most recent Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim) also just symbols?

  12. Ashera says:

    I don’t have a source, but I know all the marketing materials I’ve seen for Bioshock Infinite have Elizabeth in them — billboards, bus ads, site wallpapers, and banner ads. I actually hadn’t seen that cover before and had just assumed it would be the same image as the one on all the ads.

    • Gunthera1 says:

      That is part of why that cover bothered me. It doesn’t go with the way the game has been presented at all. If I didn’t see the title, I would assume it was a different game entirely.

  13. Cara Marie says:

    he initially did not buy System Shock 1—a game that obviously had a huge impact on his life—because he was turned off by the cover

    … because generic-white-guy covers never turn anyone off …

    I remember examining the cover and then the manual of Mass Effect, trying to figure out if ‘customisable’ meant I could play as a girl. And deciding that I probably couldn’t, because they’d mention that, right? (How naive I was!) It was my sister’s copy, so I ended up trying it anyway, but I never even picked it up in-store.

    • Deviija says:

      I have shared my Mass Effect story often, but I’ll share it again due to relevance. In all the media hype for ME, I heard zilch about being able to be a lady companion. All I saw were dudes and a guy on the cover. I figured it was just going to be some space marine shooting aliens and tonguing babes-that-were-humanish. I passed on it, never gave it another thought.

      Then around 8 months later, when a friend told me that you could play as a woman character and that she had her own voice, romances, content, customization, etc., I was bewildered. I went to buy it and give it a play through.

      So yeah, the argument being thrown by Levine can work both ways and backwards. Generic white dude with gun does little at all for me, and tells me nothing about your game other than there is some white dude with a gun. Like hundreds of other games out there.

      • Laurentius says:

        The thing is that industry is in so tight spot now,it looks like it will be hard to come up with any argument that can change their ways ( situation they cornered themselves into ). Look Square Enix : They went safety with wihite bald guy Hitman -underachiving sales according to them , Tomb Raider – Lara – another underachivement. And this is case for big publishers, smaller studios are even under more comercial strain.

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  15. Jellyfish says:

    Regarding covers for Bioshock Infinite and Elizabeth not being included on the front, I just saw this post on Tumblr and thought it might be of interest: http://sticktwiddlers.tumblr.com/post/47468405636/bioshock-infinite-alternate-covers-irrational

    The first, fourth and final designs show how they could have utilised their existing artwork that included both Booker and Elizabeth. They could’ve achieved their aim of showcasing the action and Booker as the lead without keeping Elizabeth from the front cover altogether.

  16. Something relevant to this I came across today: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/190126/The_Last_of_Us_dev_had_to_specifically_request_female_focustesters.php

    “The research group wasn’t planning on focus-testing female players – it’s something we had to specifically request”

    “This same marketing firm also told Naughty Dog that it would be best to put The Last of Us’ female protagonist Ellie on the back of the box rather than the front”

    First comment summed thing up:
    “At some point in the not-too-distant future, targeting a general audience will mean you can’t ignore half the population.”…I sure hope so.

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