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.
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.