WisCon Panel “Feminism in Gaming 2013”

Stealth elf - a dual blade wielding character from Skylanders

Stealth elf – a dual blade wielding character from Skylanders

At the end of last month, Madison, Wisconsin was home to the annual science fiction feminist convention known as WisCon. Gaming has made its way into some of the panels in recent years and the following will be a summary of some of the points made during the Feminism in Gaming 2013 panel.

Panel description – 2012 was a watershed year for discussion of misogyny in gaming, in many ways: Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter to examine misogyny in gaming, the backlash against it, and the counter-backlash; discussion of art direction in D&D Next; attacks on Felicia Day; the launch of the Gaming as Women blog; and other developments. What has happened so far in 2013? Is the amount of backlash more an indication that misogyny is getting worse, or that we’re finally getting around to the painful but necessary conversations? How much progress have we made, and what still needs to be done? #FeminismInGaming

There was a wonderful handout available at the panel and it is still online for those that would like to see it: Links to websites and interesting articles from 2012/2013


Some important moments from the last year

– the interviews during promotion for Tomb Raider that referenced wanting to protect Lara and threats of sexual violence against her character

– the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter but also the counter-backlash that quickly funded the project

– the closing of Glitch, the multiplayer game

– #1ReasonWhy, the Twitter hashtag used by women in the video game industry describing some of the misogyny that they have experienced in their careers

– Dungeons and Dragons Next art direction


Does buying problematic games mean that we end up supporting their further development and also continue to support the stereotypes that the games portray?

-Having limited funds for games also means you limit your choices – if you can only get one or two new games a year, it can become difficult to decide where to spent your money.

– One possible way to experience a game that you feel may have problematic elements without first purchasing it is to either rent it or borrow the game from a friend and then make the decision if you want to purchase the game itself.

– These decisions are further complicated when games have things that you love and want to support but still have problematic elements. One example mentioned was 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. It is a puzzle/adventure game that is text heavy which is an under represented type of game, but it had sexist representations of female characters. But the game as a whole contains both of these elements.

– One way to deal with problematic elements in games is to spread the word about those issues. Take screenshots, post blogs, talk about it on Twitter, write messages on the game forums,  tell your friends, spread the word however you feel comfortable that you are dissatisfied with different aspects of games and gaming culture. Discuss good aspects of games, but also discuss the things that upset you.

– Some people dislike financially supporting games in which violence and military action are the only solutions to a problem.  There is clearly a call for more creative games or simply more games that go outside the first person shooter genre.

– In the end, we all choose where we draw a personal line when it comes to financially supporting developers that make problematic games. There is no ONE WAY that will work for everyone.


Tabletop gaming

– One positive aspect of tabletop gaming is being able to create your own worlds and rules/alternate worlds and rules to circumvent problematic rules sets. While this is possible it also puts an additional burden on the players.

– One problem with tabletop gaming can also be the players themselves, and not just the game world. People bring their own assumptions to the table. One person mentioned a group that would always threaten any female player character with sexual violence at some point during a campaign. Those types of situations can occur even if those threats are not present in the game’s official campaign or storyline.

– Some groups attempt to make sure that everyone is comfortable by first discussing topics that should be kept out of campaigns. Someone mentioned the use of Safe Words and other tells so players could freely express when a campaign was making them feel uncomfortable.


Gaming Communities

– At times it can be the gaming community, rather than the game that is not inclusive.

– Audience members mentioned muting players when going online, never speaking up so that people don’t hear a woman’s voice, or only playing with friends when going online. The harassment drives people to cope in a variety of ways.

– Another person mentioned only playing single player games because they found online interactions to be too hostile.

– Yet another person mentioned not finishing Mass Effect 3 after having a traumatic experience with a multiplayer group.

– Communities have the potential be more harmful than games themselves in making players feel unwelcome and diminished.

– Alternately, it is wonderful to see when games attempt to bring community together. You can see that in some cooperative games or in things like Guild Wars 2 where the incentive is there to help other players rather than hamper their progress.


Clothing/Art Design

– There are a lot of examples of failure in this specific category! This occurs in terms of artbooks, game design, character design, and miniatures.

– In the family friendly game of Skylanders there is a character called Stealth Elf that is a dual blade user and she wears what is essentially a bra as a top. Even in games aimed at children there are female characters that wear revealing clothing as their default. This type of character design is pervasive in the industry.

– A comment was made about the character design changes of Samus Aran since the start of the Metroid series. The suit has become slimmer over time.

– In terms of art design, let’s not forget the failure of the headless torso figure from Dead Island.

– Another art design failure can be seen in the upcoming Dragon’s Crown game.

– To avoid some of the problematic female character design, some people mention only playing as male characters in games. We’d all rather see a change in character design rather than players feeling forced to do this to avoid problematic art direction.

– BioWare was praised specifically for their art direction with the female Commander Shepard when compared to the male Shepard.


Games/things we look forward to in the future (let’s be hopeful for a moment)

– Remember Me

– The next Dragon Age

– Roll 20 : a KickStarter project that focuses on bringing tabletop rollplaying online

– Minecraft mod ScriptCraft

– Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management – a tabletop game guide done by the Gnome Stew blog that has a cover showing a woman of color as a game master.


Other points made during the panel

– The solution cannot simply be “Then go make your own games!” when people point out issues in the current batch of games. Yes, it is wonderful that more toolsets are available for general use, but putting the burden solely on the players is unjust. Independent games are wonderful and are part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution to the problems facing the industry.

– As always, there was a call for more diversity in characters and character creation options. Why must the default always be straight, white, and male?

– There is needs to be more of a focus on the discussion of games and the industry. Let’s keep reading good stories, listening to good podcasts, checking out reviews that go beyond “was it fun?” and spread the word about these things.

– We WANT to give the industry our money. Give us something we WANT to support!


One final point!

– Don’t let jerks strip us of the gamer title! There have always been, and always will be a diverse group of people that play video games and tabletop games. Let us not let them fool us or others that we don’t exist because we have ALWAYS been here. Don’t surrender that title over to them because it is not, nor was it ever, only their property. Be gamers and be feminists. They are not mutually exclusive!

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6 Responses to WisCon Panel “Feminism in Gaming 2013”

  1. Korva says:

    Let me heartily second the statement that I WANT to keep buying and supporting and enjoying and enthusing about games! I’ve been a gamer since I was a little kid and my awesome big cousin let me play on his consoles during visits. By now I am often more than a bit jaded with all the too-familiar issues, and am very careful with my time and money, but I doubt I’ll ever stop loving gaming per se.

    We love this hobby as much or more as any of the stereotypical “target audience”, and the fact that we are still gamers despite all the BS only proves that, despite the sneers about “fake geek girls” and “casuals” and “not true gamers”.

    One question: Bioware was praised for female Shepard? That surprises me, given the whole beauty pageant on Facebook thing which left a very sour taste in my mouth back then.

    • Deviija says:

      FemShep as a character is worth praising. Her body model hasn’t changed over the three games, and she hasn’t been sexualized in customization options (face and body armor) so much over the series either. Compare that to, say, Ashley’s redesign, sexualized EDIbot (complete with easter egg camel toe when she crouches down), and the progressive boobtacular models and fetish gear of the companion characters over the series.

      What’s not worth praising is the FemShep Beauty Pageant stint. That was a really poor move with how it was done and how it played out. Casting votes on looks, casting votes on features (hair), and all.

  2. Ari says:

    The comment about threats of sexual assault in tabletop games when someone is playing a female character hit home for me. Only, I was the GM and we were playing a semi-realistic post-apocalyptic game, and the group was captured by some heavily-armed badguys. There was one female character, and I thoughtlessly segued into said threats in the voice of one of said bad guys. When I realized what I’d done I felt terrible – I had never asked the player if that was a trigger for her, or if this was something she was careful roleplaying. I apologized for it afterward, but I’ll always be shocked and dismayed by how steeped we are in rape culture that it just seemed “natural” that that’s where that situation would go, even though we’re all just trying to have pretendy funtimes.

    • Ari says:

      Doh. “Careful” should read “comfortable”.

      • Courior says:

        Yeah, I’ve been GMing games since I was a kid . Now whenever I start with a new group I tell them that the joy of roleplaying is that you can do whatever you like but heres a list of stuff I’m not comfortable that your players can’t do. Sexual Assault is always at the top of the list followed usually by tropes that I’m bored with at the moment and less serious stuff.

        I just don’t think such things are needed for a game. The use of sexual assault and the threat of it, feels like lazy storytelling these days and worse its such a trigger for so many people that everyone should be aware that it shouldn’t be used in most cases( and since I can’t think of good reason why it should be used in my games I ban it)

        • Ari says:

          For me it struck how lazy and thoughtless it was. I could have done anything in the world with those bad guys – something refreshing and original! But no, there’s a female character, there’s only one thing that could possibly happen now. Ugh. I was pretty disappointed in myself. Definitely made me think harder about the way I run from then on. Also, it was just painfully awkward and not a whole lot of fun to roleplay, either. If you’re not having fun, what’s the point?

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